It is all so tawdry. And that seems fitting.
Last Wednesday (29 June), a Conservative MP little known outside Westminster got very drunk. His behaviour – which evidently went beyond just getting drunk – set off a chain of events that is likely to remove the Prime Minister from office within weeks if not days. In the case of the strange death of Boris Johnson’s premiership, few would have predicted Mr Pincher in the Carlton Club armed with a bottle of claret as the likely culprit.
The next day, Christopher Pincher resigned as deputy chief whip. He retained the Conservative whip for a further 24 hours when it was evident that it should have been removed immediately. There was talk of double standards – the former MP Neil Parish felt hard done by – but by Friday the inevitable had happened. There was criticism for the delay but, in the great scheme of things, such a hesitation is usually not that significant.
The more difficult question was about his appointment in the first place. The weekend newspapers were filled with stories suggesting that whatever Pincher had done in the Carlton Club on Wednesday, it was not entirely unprecedented. What did the Prime Minister know when he appointed Pincher as deputy chief whip?
The operation in 10 Downing Street had a choice. It could have sought to get to the bottom of the matter, unearth the truth and offer an explanation that was both truthful and put the Prime Minister’s judgement in as reasonable a light as possible. This would not have been easy.
Alternatively, it could choose not to dig too deeply, put out a line that exonerates Johnson and hope it holds. As with partygate (but with a different set of advisers), it chose the latter. A succession of ministers defended a line that (though it evolved) essentially said that the Prime Minister did not know anything about the specific allegations against Pincher.
But this was not true, according to Simon McDonald, the former permanent secretary of the Foreign Office, who intervened with a letter of brutal clarity. Similar allegations had been made against Pincher when he was a Foreign Office minister, McDonald wrote, an investigation established that the allegations were true, Pincher had apologised, and the Prime Minister had been informed of these conclusions. In fact, it has been reported that the Prime Minister was informed about concerns over Pincher’s behaviour on five separate occasions. How to reconcile this with the assurances given to ministers that Johnson was unaware of any specific allegation? The Prime Minister, the line goes, “failed to recall”.
It is hard to believe. If it were true that these instances had slipped Johnson’s mind, it suggests that the Prime Minister is incapable of performing his duties. He must either think that the allegations were of such little significance that he dismissed them from his mind – which reveals a glaring lack of judgement – or he suffers from severe amnesia (or a combination of the two). The other explanation is that he just hoped to get away with it and was perfectly willing to allow ministers to go out and inadvertently mislead the public.
This gets to the heart of the matter, and explains why Johnson’s support has collapsed so spectacularly in the past 48 hours. When the leader of a political party says something, their parliamentary colleagues – especially front-bench colleagues – are expected to go out and back that statement up. What the Pincher case made clear yet again is that only a fool would trust a word the Prime Minister says.
There are times when defending the government line can be challenging for a minister. The position may be unpopular because sometimes governments have to make unpopular decisions. The position may be of questionable logic, because sometimes a messy compromise is necessary to hold conflicting opinions together. The position may be uncertain because decisions have yet to be made. This means there are times when ministers have to be ambiguous in their language, even downright evasive. But ministers should not be sent out (other than in very specific circumstances, usually to do with national security) to deceive.
I have focused on ministers but, at a lower-profile level, most Conservative MPs will have faced questions from constituents about the Pincher affair, and many will have responded by quoting the No 10 line about the Prime Minister, not being aware of specific allegations. When the truth emerged, all those MPs had been humiliated.
Even the most slow-witted Conservative MP must realise now that to support Boris Johnson requires a willingness to repeat arguments and positions that have little or no regard for the truth. Not only should this be deeply uncomfortable as a matter of principle but it is also clear that, at the level of prime minister, untruths have a tendency of getting found out. The Prime Minister’s knowledge of Pincher’s behaviour can be added to a long list of examples in which Johnson’s dishonesty has been exposed.
There can be no more illusions. For every day that he continues in office, trust in our politics is diminished. But for Conservative MPs, there is also the realisation that defending him now comes at the cost of losing their personal integrity. It is a price many seem no longer prepared to pay. About time, too.
[See also: Andrew Marr: the last days of Boris Johnson]