Another day, another prime ministerial scandal, as past and present Downing Street aides fight (and leak) like rats in the proverbial sack. Boris Johnson and his subservient sidekicks flatly deny a report in the once-sycophantic Daily Mail that he angrily declared last October: “No more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands.” Laura Kuenssberg and Robert Peston, the political editors of the BBC and ITV News respectively, insist that he did.
I know who I believe, but here’s the funny thing. Even as Johnson wallows in a bog of increasingly malodorous sleaze, he and his Conservative Party retain a poll lead as high as 11 points over Labour and its unimpeachably honest leader, Keir Starmer.
The reason for that conundrum is this. We live in a deeply polarised country. Johnson may be a rogue, his supporters say, but he is our rogue. He stands with the common man against a self-serving establishment and metropolitan elite who don’t give a damn about those parts of Britain that have been left behind. He fought to ensure that the “will of the people” prevailed during the battles that followed the 2016 EU referendum. He may be an old Etonian and former member of Oxford’s exclusive Bullingdon Club, but at heart he’s “one of us”.
They’re wrong. They’ve fallen for the oldest trick in the populist book – the charismatic leader who, for his own nefarious purposes, whips up the anger of a decent, honest citizenry against what he portrays a venal ruling class.
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“People can see the true motives behind Project Fear,” Johnson wrote of David Cameron and his fellow Remain campaigners just before that EU referendum. “It isn’t idealism, or internationalism. It’s a cushy elite of politicians and lobbyists and bureaucrats, circling the wagons and protecting their vested interests.”
The ruse worked. Johnson seized power. But far from cleansing the Augean stables, he has done quite the opposite. He has turned No 10 into what Johnny Mercer, the former veterans minister, called a “cesspit” after resigning from the government last week. He presides over an administration rife with cronyism, special pleading and what we would probably call corruption were it happening in a developing country. He has purged good men and women and replaced them with spineless mediocrities happy to perjure themselves on the Prime Minister’s behalf and devoid, it seems, of any sense of right and wrong.
Want to curry favour with the Prime Minister? Then offer secretly to finance the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat. Voters in disadvantaged “Red Wall” constituencies might ask, incidentally, why this self-styled “champion of the people” needs to spend almost as much on that project as they would spend on actually buying a flat, and why he and his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, employed the exorbitantly expensive Lulu Lytle to replace the “John Lewis furniture nightmare”, which most British households would love to have.
Want a lucrative contract to supply personal protective equipment during the Covid-19 pandemic? Those fortunate enough to know a Tory minister or MP could apply through a VIP “high priority lane”, and enjoyed a ten times greater chance of success regardless of their ability to deliver. Civil servants were soon “drowning” in bids from the well-connected, and unable to consider genuine offers of help, a court heard last week. Seventy-three PPE contracts worth £3.7bn may have been corrupt, Transparency International said.
You’re a billionaire expat vacuum cleaner manufacturer (and fervent Brexiteer) wanting tax policy changed before sending employees to Britain to produce ventilators during the crisis? Simple. Text the Prime Minister on his personal phone. “I will fix it tomo!” Johnson replied to James Dyson, and he did. Again, less well-connected firms that already produced ventilators were overlooked.
You’re a Saudi despot eager to buy Newcastle United? Same thing. Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince who had the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi murdered in 2018, contacted the Prime Minister on his private number. Johnson duly asked a top aide, Edward Lister, to investigate. (Yes, the same Lord Udny-Lister who remained on the payroll of two property developers during his years at No 10.) “Brilliant!” Johnson explained when told (prematurely, as it happened) that the deal was going ahead.
You’re a former prime minister watching a fortune vanish as the cowboy company that employs you goes down the drain? Then call in chits, as David Cameron did. Personally petition Rishi Sunak, Johnson’s Chancellor, and two other Treasury ministers, for taxpayer-funded loans. Call top civil servants and Bank of England officials. Invite Matt Hancock for a private drink (yes, the same Matt Hancock who holds shares in a family firm that has won NHS contracts).The list goes on and on. You’re a Downing Street aide accused of passing highly sensitive information about a looming lockdown to journalists? No need to worry if you’re a friend of the Prime Minister’s fiancée. Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, claims the Prime Minister’s response was: “Perhaps we could get the Cabinet Secretary to stop the leak inquiry.”
You’re a Tory donor who wants to reverse a council’s rejection of your £1bn property development – and to do so in time to avoid a £45m levy payable to London’s poorest borough? Then cosy up to Johnson’s Housing Secretary, as Richard Desmond did.
Given all of the above, is it any wonder that Downing Street has failed to appoint a new ethics adviser after Alex Allan’s resignation six months ago? Or that it has failed to publish an updated register of ministers’ interests, as it is legally obliged to do twice yearly? Or that Simon Case, the head of the civil service, has urged the Prime Minister to change his mobile number because he is so concerned about Johnson’s mates contacting him directly to seek favours?
Don’t take my word for all this. Those who know Johnson well say much the same. Last week alone Cummings said it was “sad to see the PM and his office fall so far below the levels of competence and integrity the country deserves”, Mercer called Johnson’s administration “the most distrustful, awful environment I’ve ever worked in”, and Dominic Grieve, the former Tory attorney general, described Johnson as a “vacuum of integrity”.
As the sleaze allegations multiply, Johnson continues to set “the people” against the supposed elite. The public “don’t give a monkey’s” about the charges, he claimed last week. Liz Truss, the Trade Secretary dispatched to defend him on Sunday’s chat shows, called them “Westminster tittle-tattle”. And the Prime Minister scored a notable victory for his base when he helped to scupper the European Super League – conveniently forgetting that he had once welcomed Manchester United’s purchase by American billionaires as “basic Conservative philosophy”.
But sooner or later it must surely dawn on Red Wall voters that they are being conned, and that their supposed champion has actually replaced a relatively honest elite with a truly rotten one. In Johnson’s court it is one rule for the well-connected and another for everyone else. Here friends and donors enrich themselves while nurses receive a 1 per cent pay rise, and beyond a few headline-grabbing but largely symbolic announcements the much-vaunted process of “levelling up” has scarcely even begun.