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28 June 2021

Boris Johnson’s refusal to sack Matt Hancock showed his contempt for accountability

The Prime Minister has no regard for quaint old concepts such as honour and integrity.

By Martin Fletcher

Had Matt Hancock not discovered, deep within him, some vestigial sense of shame and resigned on Saturday (yes, I’m being charitable) he would still be imposing draconian restrictions on our lives even as he himself flagrantly breached those restrictions and put his lover on the public payroll. So what does it say about our beloved Boris Johnson that the Prime Minister not only refused to sack his reprehensible former health secretary immediately, but declared within hours of the Sun exposing his lascivious misconduct that he “considers the matter closed”?

[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]

It shows, first of all, that the self-styled “champion of the people” shockingly misjudged the public mood. Johnson may have wanted to deny the press or Dominic Cummings Hancock’s scalp, but how on earth did he think he could get away with it? I happened to be in Suffolk, Hancock’s home turf, at the weekend. People were talking of little else, and certainly not in sorrowful or emollient terms. They were incandescent. The issue had what is fashionably called “cut through” – the cut through of a chainsaw on butter.

It shows, secondly, that while Johnson pays lip-service to “fundamental British values” and ministerial codes of conduct, he cares not a jot about quaint old concepts such as honour, integrity and doing the right thing.

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Before Hancock’s egregious misconduct Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, was found to have bullied civil servants that she worked with and had to pay her former permanent secretary £340,000 in compensation; Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, foisted a Tory donor’s £1bn property development plan on a hostile Tower Hamlets council, and did so just in time to save Richard Desmond a £45m levy payable to London’s poorest borough; and Gavin Williamson, the serially-incompetent Education Secretary, presided over an exams fiasco that hampered the prospects of tens of thousands of school pupils. Any previous prime minister would have swiftly fired them had they not done the decent thing and resigned, but under this one they survive and prosper. Just how dreadfully does a minister have to behave to be dismissed by Johnson?

Above all, the Prime Minister’s blanket refusal to sack Hancock shows an astounding arrogance, an extraordinary contempt for the normal checks and balances of a democratic society and an autocratic disdain of scrutiny and accountability that has become a defining feature of his two years in No 10.

In that time he has sidelined parliament even as he brags about repatriating its sovereignty from Brussels. The Brexit trade and divorce agreements, the most drastic restrictions on the lives of British citizens in modern times, and the biggest expansion of public expenditure since the Second World War – all have been rammed through a neutered House of Commons with minimal scrutiny.

Major announcements on lockdowns, quarantine and the like are routinely announced to the public first. Sweeping changes are introduced through “statutory instruments” that require little or no debate. Johnson treats Prime Minister’s Questions with scorn, deploying lies, obfuscation and cheap shots to deflect Keir Starmer’s entirely legitimate probing. He gets away with it because Covid restrictions mean few MPs can sit in the chamber, debates are perfunctory and there is little scope for interventions. 

“Parliament’s marginalisation under the pandemic has been shocking,” the Constitution Unit, a respected think tank, warned recently. “I say now, Prime Minister, you are on my watch and I want you to treat this house correctly,” Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, protested earlier this month. 

Johnson, himself a former journalist, likewise evades entirely legitimate media scrutiny. He gives the appearance of openness. Few days pass without a prime ministerial photo opportunity, or what are known in the trade as “pool clips” where he stops to deliver a few well-honed words – usually containing a headline-grabbing soundbite – to a television crew while out and about. 

But the Prime Minister sets the rules in those encounters, and journalists have to accept whatever self-serving crumbs he throws them. I struggle to remember the last time he gave journalists an opportunity to ask questions and develop a sustained line of interrogation. I cannot recall him sitting down for an in-depth interview with the BBC, or any other British television channel, since he appeared on The Andrew Marr Show six months ago. He famously chickened out of a grilling by Andrew Neil during the last general election.

Thus Johnson gets away with scandal after scandal, transgression after transgression, failure after failure. 

He evades accountability for the belated lockdowns and border closures, the spread of Covid-19 to care homes, the dispensing of lucrative PPE contracts to cronies and the shocking expenditure of £37bn on an ineffectual Test and Trace scheme during the coronavirus pandemic. He has simultaneously postponed a full, independent public inquiry into his government’s handling of the pandemic until it no longer has the ability to cause him much political harm.

He evades accountability for the lost exports, the fresh tensions with Scotland, the disastrous Northern Ireland protocol which he signed but now denounces, and all the other woeful consequences of Brexit.

He has managed to avoid revealing who paid for his holiday in Mustique last December, or for the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat. He was able to sidestep the revelation that he channelled £126,000 of public funds to his former lover, Jennifer Arcuri, while mayor of London. He doubtless thought he could shrug off Hancock’s disgraceful behaviour too, but for once the public, the normally subservient Tory press and his own backbenchers would not let him.

For all that, the Conservatives look set to seize another “Red Wall” seat, Batley and Spen, from Labour in Thursday’s by-election. Johnson will crow while Starmer, a man of unimpeachable honesty and integrity, will be denounced for his lack of charisma and could well face a leadership challenge. What a travesty.