By Julia Langdon in THE TABLET, 26 January 2022
And so it turns out that Michael Gove was right all along. Five long years ago, two weeks after the Brexit referendum, he announced, somewhat portentously: “I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.”
His words brought a predictably dramatic end then to Boris Johnson’s first tilt at the Conservative leadership. Of course, things have rather moved on since, yet there appear to be plenty of Tory MPs – not to mention members of the Conservative Party out there in the sticks – who would now credit the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government as something of a soothsayer. The fact that, as Minister for Levelling Up, Gove now also happens to be a key member of the administration run by the same incompetent he previously so decried, is admittedly a puzzling detail – but I shall come to that.
The brutal reality, as I wrote here a few weeks ago, as has been widely advertised, is that Boris Johnson’s government has lost both moral and political authority and, more important still, has lost the trust of the British people.
The report by Sue Gray, imminently awaited as I write, cannot make any difference to any of that. It might speed the Prime Minister’s departure from office; or it might enable him to hang on a little longer, while the Conservative Party attempts to gets its succession plan organised. But it is futile for the current administration in Number 10 to believe that the situation can be recovered sufficiently for Johnson to lead the party into the next general election. He can neither provide the leadership nor build the necessary team. and he cannot regain the trust he has so recklessly squandered.
The Conservative Party has changed greatly over the years – so much so that it is impossible even to imagine how the great historical figures who still stalked the corridors at Westminster when I was first a parliamentary reporter, Harold Macmillan, say, or Quintin Hogg, would respond to the sheer stupidity of a government that wilfully breaks its own rules. But it remains just as ruthless as it ever was. It will dump a loser, albeit if that means waiting until the time is right. It may eventually prove to be one identifiable offence – say, lying to the House of Commons, for example – that will bring about the fall of Johnson. But it is the fact that so many fires have broken out in the political brushwood that is itself an indication of how damaged his administration is, and how fragile his continuing hold on office.
Just since the autumn there has been the scandal of second jobs and sinecures for ex-ministers, both of which fuel the public suspicion that all politicians are only in the business for their own benefit. An opinion poll in November showed that about two-thirds of the population hold that view – and that was before any of the shenanigans about partygate. There have been endless revelations about cash for influence of one kind or another, whether it is a seat in the House of Lords or a lucrative multimillion pound contract for something to deal with the pandemic that somehow didn’t go out for public tender. The Johnsons have been cleared of wrongdoing over the precise details of how they financed the cushions and curtains in their designer private drawing room, but there is still a whiff of something inappropriate that hangs in the air. The designer even gets to go to the prime minister’s birthday party.
Now we have allegations of blackmail, reputedly worthy of investigation by the police, and of Islamophobia towards those holding government office. The Whips’ Office may have been regarded as the licensed dirty tricks department since Disraeli was a boy, but it has never previously been suggested that the Metropolitan Police might take an interest in its activities. Institutional racism is perhaps more predictable, if equally unacceptable, and of course inevitably merits yet another inquiry. Are there as many ongoing inquiries as there have been private Whitehall parties during public lockdown yet? Who can count?
Is all this different from bygone days? Were not the whips always threatening to dish the domestic dirt on their backbenchers whose private lives were less than virtuous? It was always known that “little black books” were kept in both main whips’ offices – and by individual whips, too – detailing the shortcomings of those recalcitrants who might one day need, literally, to be brought to book and shore up the government in exchange for saving their marriage or their reputation.
One former Labour whip is fond of relating how he was once sent to remonstrate with an elderly backbencher who was causing trouble, only to learn later that day that the MP had unexpectedly died; the chief whip sent him a message saying simply: “Overkill”. He wouldn’t dare to do that on social media today, yet are the threats issued by today’s whips worse than they once were? It seems unlikely.
There is also the considerable curiosity of the fact that partygate – at Number 10 and beyond in Whitehall – was not publicly revealed until before Christmas, despite the fact that there were so many parties. Surely someone must have known or heard what was going on, so why did it not reach public attention? The Telegraph’s ineffable Matt captured this with a cartoon of a man on the phone saying: “Hello police – I live near the Downing Street garden. It’s eerily quiet tonight – is everything OK?”
Was it hushed up because there were journalists present? I pose the question – I do not know the answer. It is odd, though, that it reportedly took the Daily Mirror 11 months to stand up the story in order to be the first to publish it. Perhaps the hand of Dominic Cummings may be detected here? He not only knew where the bottles were opened, but, given his mission to destroy his former master, would surely have got at least as much satisfaction from pulling the corks in the press with such a series of satisfying pops.
It is also the case that Johnson is himself a journalist with a precise understanding of how the Westminster world works. And while he has found support in print from his former Telegraph colleague Charles Moore (Baron Moore of Etchingham since October 2020), it was, nevertheless, The Telegraph which piled into partygate with the disclosure of the boozy basement knees-up at Number 10 on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral.
And there has always been a complexity in the interplay of relationships between the press and politicians. Take the case of the two children born to Marcia Williams (later Lady Falkender) in the late-1960s, when she was head of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s private office. Many years afterwards, it was disclosed that the father of her two sons was the (married) political editor of the Daily Mail, but it also emerged that at least two other political editors had known the circumstances and chosen not to publish the fact. “It didn’t seem any of our business,” said my one-time boss, Ian Aitken, of The Guardian.
Some time after it happened, I learned how I myself had been used in a pathetic attempt made by Robert Maxwell, the proprietor of the Daily Mirror, to exert influence – social blackmail in this case – on Neil Kinnock. The then Labour Party leader was planning a high-profile trip to a number of African countries, designed to portray him as an international statesman, and the editor of the Daily Mirror had undertaken to send me, as political editor, to report on his progress. Maxwell, however, had a price to exert: he wanted Kinnock to grace some social function he had planned, and when Kinnock declined his invitation, he threatened to withdraw Mirror coverage of the African adventure. I have no idea if Kinnock went to the party, but I went to Africa.
Such relative trivialities might tickle the salacious palate of elements of the press, but are insignificant in comparison to the hypocrisy that has been displayed by Johnson and, indeed, by so many others in his office. It starts with the instance of Michael Gove being prepared to accept a cabinet position in a government whose leader he had so publicly repudiated. It concludes with a promise of dismissal for all those party-going Downing Street miscreants who are apparently to lose their jobs in order to try to sustain the Prime Minister in his.
And the oddest thing of all? None of this is about government policy. With inflation at a 30-year high and household incomes set to suffer further in the months ahead, this discredited Prime Minister is attempting to keep himself in power by boasting of his government’s “success” in handling the pandemic when the UK has the highest death toll in Europe and – in the words of last week’s Tablet editorial – by seeking to appease the bloodthirsty right-wing carnivores of the Conservative Party. But tossing them appetising nuggets of red meat, like closing down the BBC and sending the Royal Navy to deal with immigrants in the English Channel, isn’t going to save the seats of many Tory MPs. It is his failure to trust the electorate with the truth, just as he has proved untrustworthy in his private life, that has lost Johnson the chance of being trusted in return – and it is that which will devour his political career.
Julia Langdon is The Tablet’s lobby correspondent.