Like many others, I scoured Sue Gray’s “partygate” report last week for the killer fact that would make it impossible even for a prime minister as shameless and dishonourable as Boris Johnson to survive in office.
I scoured it in vain, but I then realised that the report itself was one long killer fact. Taken as a whole, it left not a scintilla of doubt that Johnson and his wife, Carrie, fostered and encouraged the thoroughly rotten culture of arrogance, entitlement and contempt for the rules that permeates No 10.
At a time when the Prime Minister was criminalising all forms of human contact beyond an irreducible minimum, he or his subordinates were holding almost weekly parties in the very seat of government, replete with food, drink, music, karaoke, spilled wine, vomit, altercations, broken swings and drunken participants stumbling home in the small hours of the morning having roundly abused the domestic staff who had to clean up the mess. Moreover, it is crystal clear from their emails that the revellers knew they were breaking the rules, and actually boasted of having “got away with [it]”.
Cue a protracted display of writhing and squirming from the “greased piglet” – of semantics, casuistry and conman’s patter. “I briefly attended such gatherings to thank them [Downing Street advisers and officials] for their service,” protested the man who forbade tens of thousands of distraught citizens from saying a final farewell to parents and partners on their deathbeds; the man who omitted to attend five consecutive Cobra meetings at the start of the Covid pandemic.
“I take full responsibility,” said Johnson, but they were meaningless words. Had he really meant them, he would have accepted the consequences that flowed from them. He would have resigned, and the likes of Simon Case and “Party Marty” Reynolds with him. It is striking that beyond the 126 fines issued to 83 mostly anonymous individuals by the police, not a single political aide or civil servant has been sanctioned, punished or disciplined in any way – but then how could they be when Johnson was so culpable himself?
“I hope… we will be able to move on and focus on the priorities of the British people,” the Prime Minister asserted, blithely ignoring the fact that two thirds of the “people” want him gone. “I apologise… and I’m humbled,” he protested, but the first thing he did after parliament recessed the following day (Thursday 26 May) was neuter the ministerial code to tighten his grip on office.
He also tried to buy off angry voters with vast dollops of money – a £15bn clean-up bill for the most expensive parties in history. (I exaggerate, of course, but only a little.)
The third was to chuck an absurd hunk of red meat to his Brexiteer base. He let it be known that he intends to restore imperial measures. Is anyone really deceived by such a transparent, retrogressive, jingoistic ploy? Not Dominic Cummings, who tweeted: “no 10’s cunning plan that bulls**t about feet and inches is a good distraction from the total chaos of no 10’s/tory party’s real situation shd strike terror into even the dumbest of the ERG [European Research Group].” Nor Alicia Kearns, the Tory MP for Rutland and Melton, who tweeted: “Not one constituent, ever, has asked for this. This isn’t a brexit freedom. It’s a nonsense.”
Hats off to Kearns. She is one of just 24 Tory backbenchers who have had the guts to call for Johnson’s immediate resignation, and one of just nine to have done so since Gray’s report was published.
Twenty four? That’s barely 7 per cent of the parliamentary party. What on Earth has happened to the remaining 334? Have they lost all sense of right and wrong? Have their moral compasses been completely destroyed by nearly three years of Johnsonian misrule? Do they not realise that their craven, spineless silence in the face of the Prime Minister’s serial misconduct has long been tantamount to complicity?
They represent what was once the party of law and order, but say nothing as their leader repeatedly flouts the law. They claim to champion “the people”, but stay mum as Johnson routinely takes the people for fools. They fought to restore parliament’s sovereignty through Brexit, but remain mute as he regularly lies to the Commons. They wrap themselves in the Union flag, but hold their tongues as he relentlessly debases his office, demeans No 10, trashes an unwritten constitution based on trust and integrity, and inflicts untold social, economic and political damage on the country.
These little men and women, these moral pygmies, then have the gall to cheer and jeer as Johnson stands at the despatch box and accuses Keir Starmer of lacking patriotism and of running Britain down.
They are not so dissimilar to their Republican counterparts in the US who embrace the Big Lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election because it’s easier than taking a stand; or refuse to support gun controls even as an endless succession of gunmen massacre the nation’s children because to do so might cost them their seats.
Tory backbenchers and ministers privately bemoan Johnson’s egregious behaviour, but seek to suggest that they are merely biding their time, that they are saving their fire for the right moment. Wait for the Met to investigate, they said. Wait for the local election results. Wait for Sue Gray. Wait for the Tiverton and Wakefield by-election. Wait for the end of the Ukraine war.
These are mere pretexts for their continued inaction, excuses for their cowardice. They have known from the moment they chose Johnson as their leader that he was unfit for office. They know the lies, the transgressions and the scandals will keep on coming – Carrie Johnson’s as-yet-uninvestigated shindigs in the No 10 flat for starters. But I suspect it is already too late to save their party and their seats.
They are hopelessly compromised. The Conservative brand is irredeemably sullied. The polls are bleak. An unflattering new narrative is taking root. The usual political tricks – the empty pledges, the half-truths, the vacuous slogans, the headline-grabbing gimmicks, the fatuous photo-ops, the stoking of hatreds and the inflaming of divisions – are losing their efficacy. Populism’s inevitable endgame – public fury at the government’s failure to deliver on cynical promises – is fast approaching as the nation’s woes rapidly escalate.
Johnson is leading the Tories to an electoral rout from which – if a progressive coalition government has the good sense to enact electoral reform – the Conservative Party may never recover. And when that happens, its quisling MPs and ministerial collaborators should bear almost as much blame as Johnson himself.