Downflood: the Good Ship Boris is sinking

24 January 2022

6:00 PM

24 January 2022

6:00 PM

In Sebastian Junger’s book The Perfect Storm, there’s a near-matchless description of how big boats go to the bottom. ‘The crisis curve starts out gradually and quickly becomes exponential,’ Junger writes of a boat wallowing and taking on water in a big sea:

The more trouble she’s in, the more trouble she’s likely to get in, and the less capable she is of getting out of it, which is an acceleration of catastrophe that is almost impossible to reverse… If there’s enough damage, flooding may overwhelm the pumps and short out the engine or gag its air intakes. With the engine gone, the boat has no steerageway at all and turns broadside to the seas. Broadsides exposes her to the full force of the breaking waves, and eventually a part of her deck or wheelhouse lets go. After that, downflooding starts to occur. Downflooding is the catastrophic influx of ocean water into the hold. It’s a sort of death rattle at sea, the nearly vertical last leg of an exponential curve.

This seems to me to be the stage at which Boris Johnson’s premiership has arrived. Other metaphors present themselves

— going broke gradually rather than all at once; feeding frenzies and so on — but this one best captures that quality we now see, where each successive wave makes the impact of the next wave more disastrous. There’s a game-theoretical aspect to Tory regicide, or any loss of power — what in another context has been called the ‘tipping point’. At first, letters will trickle in to the 1922 committee: it’s a brave or principled person who risks coming at the king and missing. But for a second-tier potential assassin, the more knives are already out the more likely you are to plunge yours in; and the fewer and less vigorous will be those defending the target.

Each news cycle sees the good ship Boris battered broadside by yet more waves. Sue Gray’s inquiry, though it may well be the pretext or occasion for the boat finally going to the bottom, now seems to me almost irrelevant to the question of whether it will: if he looks like he’s going down, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. She may well uncover things we don’t already know, but it’s hard to imagine her report is going to change the complexion of the things. Backbenchers are going to be more interested in their job prospects come the next election than in whether there’s proof positive Martin Reynolds was warned in writing, and in turn warned the PM in writing, that a trestle-table full of crisps in the Downing Street garden might be in contravention of the rules he made.

Little more than a week ago, the dwindling band of Prime Ministerial partisans were trying to spin the idea that if Sue Gray failed to recommend the PM’s defenestration (which, of course, she could hardly be expected to — that wasn’t her remit) that would be him ‘exonerated’ and they’d wriggle through. Unless they are stark mad, or Grant Shapps, they will surely by now know that dog won’t hunt. We’re in the territory of politics, here, not law — though law may of course come later.

And ‘but Sue Gray’ doesn’t cover the many other angles of attack. The PM’s defenders have inadvertently supplied some of the most damaging ones. For most of a week now we’ve been reading allegations of potentially criminal misconduct by the malevolent Baldricks of the government’s whipping operation. Gavin Williamson (of course it would be him) is accused on the record of threatening to punish an MP’s constituents by withdrawing public funds from a local project if he voted the wrong way.

A dozen MPs are said to have reported being blackmailed by the whips. Downing Street’s line that they will refuse to investigate until presented with the evidence will likely prove as irrelevant as Sue Gray: the chairman of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is already taking his evidence directly to the police.

Now Nusrat Ghani alleges, flabbergastingly, that she lost her ministerial role on the grounds of her ‘Muslimness’. I confess that one gave me pause. Is it really plausible that a government Chief Whip, in a party already on the defensive over accusations of Islamophobia, would have said out loud that a Muslim minister was getting the sack because of her faith — even were that the case? It’s almost unimaginable (and the chief whip, Mark Spencer, denies that anything of the sort took place) though there again we’ve learnt by now not to underestimate the ineptitude of this crowd. Still, what was said, what was understood, what was thought and what was insinuated may not matter all that much in the end. The wave is already on deck.

It’s worth noticing that in Ghani’s account of it she kept quiet at the time because she was warned she risked being ostracised by colleagues and having her career destroyed. I don’t mention this to deprecate her: there’s every reason you might make the calculation that you can do more good in the long run by swallowing a personal injury to stay on the inside of the tent. It’s the sort of calculation a grown-up politician might make (and she says that at the time she did raise the matter directly with the PM in private, only to be given the brush-off).

I mention it, rather, because it seems to show that at this stage she knows, and they know, and we all know, that there’s no long-term advantage to keeping in with Mark Spencer and Boris Johnson. Not only has power drained from the people once in a position to threaten her political career; but that we’re in a news environment where there is no danger of her claim being buried or shrugged off. The blood is in the water, the sky is dark with chickens coming home to roost, and — sploosh! — that sound you hear is downflooding.

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