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6 March 2023

Rishi Sunak needs to learn from Keir Starmer’s ruthlessness

The Prime Minister needs to marginalise Boris Johnson as thoroughly as the Labour leader has Jeremy Corbyn.

By Martin Fletcher

It is hard not to feel a modicum of sympathy for Rishi Sunak, this weekend’s draconian legislation to deter asylum seekers notwithstanding. 

He promises, with apparent sincerity, a government of “integrity, professionalism and accountability”. He breaks the protracted impasse over the Northern Ireland protocol. He appeals for party unity and an end to the Tories’ “psychodrama”. Yet he is dogged at every turn by Boris Johnson with his toxic legacy and insatiable egotism.

Last week should have been a good one for the Prime Minister, beginning as it did with his announcement of the Windsor framework, a triumph of compromise over confrontation that vows to end years of futile hostility between the UK and European Union. But it was largely eclipsed by the Daily Telegraph’s lockdown files, its tranche of leaked WhatsApp messages from the health secretary during Covid, Matt Hancock, which provides vivid, daily reminders of what a thoroughly dysfunctional, spiteful and dishonest government Johnson ran.

[See also: Migrant mathematics: the real calculation behind Sunak’s refugee crackdown]

They revealed that Johnson “veered between lockdown sceptic and lockdown zealot” depending on whom he spoke to last; how the “protective ring” that supposedly protected care homes never existed; and how Covid testing figures were shamelessly manipulated. Policy, it appears, was frequently driven not by the “science”, as Johnson claimed, but by public opinion, ideology or a desire to avoid rows with Nicola Sturgeon. Plotting and backbiting abounded.

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Hancock was more concerned with his public image than the public’s health. “I think I look great!” he messaged. “I must own this,” he insisted of the vaccine breakthrough. He contemptuously referred to the police as “the plod”, and Sunak’s “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme as “eat out to help the virus get about”. A Hancock aide called Dominic Cummings, then Johnson’s strategy chief, a “f***ing piece of s**t”.

Gavin Williamson, then education secretary, disdainfully accused the teaching unions of hating work. Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, thought it “hilarious” that travellers returning to the UK were being quarantined in tiny hotel rooms. A testing kit for one of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s children was hand-delivered to his home despite an acute national shortage. 

I think the journalist Isabel Oakeshott behaved deplorably by leaking a copious number of Hancock’s messages to the Telegraph, though I confess I’ve enjoyed the revelations. Her claims to have acted in the public interest would carry far more weight had she not written Hancock’s self-serving memoir about Covid last year, or violated a non-disclosure agreement in going to the paper. No wonder journalists are so mistrusted.

But for Hancock to accuse her of a “massive betrayal and breach of trust” is the height of hypocrisy. This is a man who betrayed not just his wife but the entire country by having an affair with an aide, Gina Coladangelo, even as he demanded that people follow social distancing rules. He served, moreover, in a government that routinely dealt in perfidy (ask the DUP) and was ready to breach binding legal agreements (the Northern Ireland protocol).

Alongside last week’s lockdown files, a damning report from the Commons Privileges Committee revived vivid memories of another disgraceful episode from Johnson’s years in No 10 – partygate. Those reminiscences were added to by Keir Starmer’s appointment of Sue Gray, who conducted the investigation into partygate revelations, as his chief of staff.

Cue a barrage of synthetic outrage from Johnson and his supporters. Gray’s move proved the entire partygate probe was politically motivated, they protested, as if Johnson had never attended any lockdown parties or not been fined by the police for doing so. They chose to forget that Johnson himself appointed Gray to investigate partygate because of her reputation for integrity and fairness, and that her original report was such a model of understatement and impartiality that the then prime minister claimed it “vindicated” him. 

[See also: To succeed, Keir Starmer needs to be much more than “business friendly”]

They also chose to overlook that Johnson’s government sought blatantly to politicise the civil service, pushing or freezing out several permanent secretaries whom it deemed insufficiently committed to its cause; and that it routinely placed political allies in supposedly non-partisan jobs. It made Richard Sharp, Johnson’s mate and financial enabler, the BBC’s chairman, for example. Even more outrageously, it sought to make the Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre head of the media regulator Ofcom.

And then there was Johnson’s widely reported and probably well-remunerated speech at the Global Soft Power Summit last week, in which he said he would find it “very difficult” to vote for Sunak’s Windsor framework because the EU retained a residual role in Northern Ireland’s affairs – a sentiment echoed by his former chief Brexit negotiator David Frost.

The hypocrisy of those two charlatans, their apparent lack of anything resembling contrition or apology, is astounding. The framework was required only because the supposedly “oven-ready” deal that they negotiated, approved and hailed as such a glorious victory back in 2019, and with which Johnson won the 2019 election, has since proved such a mess. It is a huge improvement on anything they achieved, but they still have the gall to oppose it.

Johnson’s motivation is not hard to discern. Although he failed miserably as prime minister, and was drummed from office in disgrace, he wants to foment a Tory rebellion, shaft Sunak and return to No 10. My sympathy for Sunak is somewhat diminished by the fact that he was a leading member of Johnson’s government whose silence made him complicit in the prime minister’s law-breaking, serial venality, profligacy and cronyism. He was himself fined over “partygate”. He did eventually call for Johnson’s resignation, but far too late.

But I do regard him as fundamentally honest, competent and diligent, and Johnson will continue to haunt him. The “greased piglet” will remain permanently on “manoeuvres”. He will continue to seek ways to undermine a successor he blames for his downfall, continue to hog the limelight and continue to remind millions of decent, centrist voters why they cannot conceivably vote Conservative. Next up: a row over his resignation honours list which, according to a report in the Times, will reward as many as a hundred people and include a knighthood for his father for services to… what exactly?

Sunak surely understands by now that Johnson is a rival not an ally, an electoral liability not an asset, and loyal only to himself. He must act accordingly. He needs to marginalise his predecessor and his acolytes as Starmer has Jeremy Corbyn and the Corbynistas. He could start by withdrawing the whip from any Tory MP who votes against the framework. He could defend the Privileges Committee, end taxpayer financing of Johnson’s legal defence and cease pandering to the former prime minister’s dwindling band of supporters with, for example, Sunak’s small-boats plan or Rees-Mogg’s ludicrous bill to remove all EU law from the statute book.

Sunak holds the power. His party may be deeply fractured, but even the dimmest Tory right-wingers must realise that they cannot change their leader a third time before the next election.

Read more:

The rise, fall and rise of Suella Braverman

Keir Starmer essay: This is what I believe

Sue Gray’s appointment as chief of staff is a coup for Keir Starmer

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