Oh for heaven’s sake, come off it. British politics has long had a comfortable relationship with the absurd but this week – not yet over, its revelations not yet exhausted – takes a very pretty biscuit nonetheless. I do not imagine that ‘Downing Street apologises to the Queen for party revels’ is quite the kind of headline Conservative prime ministers dream of.
And while Boris Johnson has a copper-clad alibi for the suitcase-of-booze party in as much as he was at Chequers that night, it remains the case – as has always been the case – that a government is led from the top. Consequently, the character of the man or woman at its pinnacle slowly but surely informs other aspects of the government’s behaviour. It is a question of culture. And who can be surprised that a government led by a man famously impatient with rules, regulations and sundry other curbs on his own behaviour might in time be staffed by folk similarly impatient with such trivial things?
I know. Me neither. Yet here we are and here we shall remain until such time as some several dozen Tory MPs summon the courage – the decency, actually – to do something about it. The power to do so is in their hands and it is fair to judge them by their willingness to use it.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the kind of supercilious fool born with a silver spoon in his mouth who thinks he earned the spoon, prattles on that the real difficulty is that the rules were jolly hard to follow and, consequently, no-one could reasonably expect the Prime Minister to observe them. I look forward to this charity being extended to benefit claimants caught in official quicksand and to anyone tempted to file a modestly dishonest tax return this month. DWP and HMRC rules are frightfully complicated too.
The timing does matter. There is a difference between a flagrant breach of the rules during that first 100 day total lockdown and a minor, or accidental, breach of the subsequent ‘rule of six’ or other restrictions at a time when, to some extent anyway, the general spirit of the law was more significant than its strict application. Even so, those thousands of people fined and convicted of breaking Covid regulations might reasonably wonder why their behaviour has been sanctioned but Downing Street’s has not.
It is, at root, a question of fairness and of propriety and it takes no great powers of insight to notice that the Prime Minister and his office have offended against any and every sense of fair play and decency and sensible behaviour. The law may say what it will – and it is not for Sue Gray to rule on matters of law, incidentally – but the moral offence is clear and obvious to anyone whose pay packet or career prospects does not depend on pretending all is fine here and there is nothing to see whatsoever. The moral problem is much weightier than any legal difficulty; it is not, on the whole, unreasonable to expect the Prime Minister and his officials to follow the bloody rules they bloody well wrote themselves.
Instead, cabinet ministers appear determined to play everyone else for a fool. ‘I’ve spoken to constituents’, Nadine Dorries says – sparking an upsurge in sympathy for the long-suffering residents of Mid-Bedfordshire, I suppose – ‘and they’ve done nothing but express support for the Prime Minister’.
Comical stuff from a comedy cabinet minister whose promotion to her post was itself a revealing commentary on this government’s seriousness of purpose. You troll if you want to, but some of us can recall a time when government was a little bigger than that.
Meanwhile the Prime Minister whines that everyone is being beastly to him even though he did nothing wrong. He doesn’t deserve this, you see. At the same time, he’d very much like you to know that his non-apology apology was wholly sincere. You can wheel a suitcase through the gap between these positions. Never mind reality, however, for in Downing Street any old nonsense may be made true merely by stating it must be.
The behaviour matters – for without it there’d be no need to invent excuses for it – but the attempt to rewrite the reality of that behaviour takes biscuit-taking to a whole new level. We told the Queen we were sorry about all ‘this’ but we cannot say what ‘this’ is. If you accept that, the Easter Bunny has a bridge to Belfast he’d like to sell you.
On and on it goes and on and on it will go until such time as the public – that’s you, matey – are dulled into submission, meekly accepting that this is just the way it is and, consequently, also the way it must be. Old news. Boring news. Time to move on.
Well, no. At some point some kind of standards must be insisted upon. I gently suggest we have reached that point and that henceforth there is no crime in taking names twice over: first of those who have the good sense to make a public declaration this cannot carry on like this for very much longer; and, second, of those so craven they dare not say anything at all or, worse, peddle the uttermost nonsense in support of a Prime Minister who, whatever his charms and gifts, is plainly not even on nodding terms with the truth.
Enough. Enough already. Get on with it and then, you know, we really can move on.
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