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31 January 2022

Martin Fletcher

Boris Johnson may survive – but only by doing yet more damage to the UK

In his desperate bid to cling to office, the Prime Minister is now being ably aided and abetted by the Metropolitan Police.

After a month’s relentless drubbing over “partygate”, and with Sue Gray’s report imminent, Boris Johnson is moving on to the offensive this week with a series of attention-grabbing pronouncements. Hurriedly assembled, stinking of expediency, they are mostly smoke and mirrors, window dressing or, for want of a better word, rhubarb. 

Today, on Brexit’s second anniversary, he unveils a Brexit Freedoms bill that will make it easier to tear up EU-era regulations. Brussels will find it “impossible to hold back the UK and impossible to stop this country taking advantage of our new freedoms – and we will go ever faster,” bragged our jingoist-in-chief.  

But the bill comes nearly six years after the Brexit referendum, and it’s a fair guess that it has only been announced now because Brexiteers, such as the former minister David Frost, are so angry at the lack of progress. Indeed, the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were only told about it at the weekend during a “last-minute, fractious and cack-handed” call with Suella Braverman, the Attorney General.

The bill is accompanied by a document listing the “Benefits of Brexit”. We know from the Financial Times that the list was hastily concocted, and that Whitehall departments struggled to produce enough convincing examples. For example, the Department of Transport’s proposed ban on pavement parking was omitted because there was nothing to stop the UK imposing such a ban while an EU member.

Any genuine benefits of Brexit should also be set against the huge costs of quitting the EU: roughly, a dramatic 4 per cent cut to long-term growth; diminished global stature; a fractured Union; social rupture; broken supply chains; labour shortages; a whole new layer of red tape for exporters; and the loss of our right to live, work and travel freely anywhere in Europe.

On Wednesday (2 February), Michael Gove will publish his long-delayed “levelling-up” white paper. But he has secured precious little new money from the Treasury to finance his ideas, and he was caught out on 29 January when he used the Mail on Sunday to trumpet a “new £1.5bn brownfield fund” for 20 deprived “Boris Boroughs”. That money, it transpired, had already been announced by Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, in last autumn’s Spending Review.

On levelling up, the government will again ignore the bigger picture. Britain’s “left-behind” communities are the ones suffering most from soaring inflation, surging energy prices, council tax increases and the end of the £20 universal credit uplift. Johnson’s self-styled “people’s government” now presides over the widest gap between the incomes of rich and poor in a decade. Under his leadership, the process of levelling up has actually gone backwards. 

At some point this week our faux-Churchillian Prime Minister (who failed to attend the weekend’s 50th anniversary Bloody Sunday commemorations in Londonderry) will fly to Ukraine for a glorified photo-op designed, no doubt, to show him as a tough, resolute leader on the eve of possible war. 

He will also telephone Vladimir Putin to warn him against invading Ukraine, but why would Russia’s president take him seriously? If Johnson was serious about tackling the Russian threat he would have long ago heeded the demands of both the Biden administration and the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that he halt the flow of suspect Russian money into “Londongrad”.

Last week, the Times splashed on Washington’s “dismay and frustration” at Britain’s inaction, which undermines its proposed sanctions package against Putin. Writing in the Sunday Times, Oliver Bullough, author of Butler to the World: How Britain Became the Servant of Tycoons, Tax Dodgers, Kleptocrats and Criminals, observed: “No one has been more accommodating of Putin’s oligarchs than Britain’s politicians; and, as a result, no one is more to blame than us for the fact that Russia’s richest can treat war like a spectator sport.”

Oh, what a surprise! Here’s a front-page story in the Times today (31 January) announcing that “ministers will target the British investments of oligarchs and businesses with links to the Kremlin as part of a tough new sanctions regime if Russia invades Ukraine.”

Alongside these stories was a joint Sunday Times article in which Johnson and Sunak pledged to press ahead with their proposed £12bn hike in National Insurance, despite considerable Tory back-bench opposition. No 10 presumably hoped their declaration would suggest strong and principled leadership. In reality, it showed a gravely weakened Prime Minister unable to overrule his Chancellor. As a Times headline proclaimed: “Rishi Sunak wins tug-of-war over national insurance hike”.

The article was also shockingly disingenuous. The two men argued that the National Insurance increase was essential to fund the NHS and social care. But, they added, “we are Thatcherites, in the sense that we believe in sound money. There is no magic money tree.” This from a pair who managed to squander more than £37bn on a scarcely serviceable test-and-trace scheme, and whose failure to even try to recoup nearly £4.3bn in fraudulent Covid claims prompted Theodore Agnew to resign as efficiency minister last week.

This rush of announcements is, of course, part of Johnson’s wider plan to survive “partygate” by distracting public attention, threatening or bribing mutinous Tory backbenchers, and hoping that voters’ fury abates over time. In the last part of that plan he is now being ably aided and abetted by the Metropolitan Police. 

The police officers guarding No 10 seem to have failed to report the numerous lockdown parties that took place in Downing Street. Once those parties were exposed by the media, the Met refused to investigate, claiming that it does not investigate alleged breaches of Covid regulations retrospectively. It chose to act only after Sue Gray gave it the evidence on a plate, and then did so in an utterly perverse manner: it said her report should contain “minimal references” to the parties she’s been investigating lest it compromise their investigation.

Let’s be clear. A redacted report will help Johnson because it will have far less impact. It will, for a while at least, deny parliament and the public the full and unspun truth they have demanded, and that Johnson so solemnly promised in his mock show of contrition. Far from ensuring justice, the Met may well end up thwarting it.

The Met and its commissioner, Cressida Dick, thus join the long list of institutions and individuals diminished, compromised or contaminated by their association with the Prime Minister. 

It includes those cabinet ministers and recently ennobled newspaper columnists who continue defend his disgraceful conduct; a parliamentary party too cowardly to get rid of a man they know to be a charlatan; advisers such as Christopher Geidt, who failed to resign after the Prime Minister deceived or ignored them; senior civil servants such as Dan Rosenfield and Simon Case; the Ulster Unionists he betrayed to secure Brexit; the various wives and girlfriends that Johnson has cheated on; David Brownlow, Allegra Stratton and many more besides. 

Johnson’s shameless strategy to save his own skin may work. Though seriously wounded he may survive, at least in the short term. But only by heaping yet more damage on the country in whose flag he so cynically wraps himself.

[See also: It’s not Sue Gray or the Met keeping Boris Johnson in power]

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