It reminded me, unexpectedly, of a Dave Chappelle stand-up routine from way back in 2000. Musing upon the racist treatment of Black people by the police, the comedian recalled with incredulity an incident in which his white friend, Chip, had drunkenly raced from the traffic lights against another car at top speed, been pulled over by the cops, and, with a straight face, simply said: “Sorry, officer… I didn’t know I couldn’t do that.”
And there, last Tuesday, during a hospital visit, was Boris Johnson, telling Sky’s Beth Rigby exactly the same unbelievable thing about his appearance at the now-infamous Number 10 garden party on 20 May 2020: “Nobody told me that what we were doing was against the rules, that the event in question was something that… was not a work event.”
In other words, just like Chip, the prime minister was claiming that he didn’t know that he couldn’t do that. Though the Covid rules that the party self-evidently not only broke, but shattered, had been drawn up by his own government, nobody had “told him” that all the people on the lawn with glasses of wine and nibbles were, in fact, having a party. Well: how could the Eton- and Oxford-educated PM reasonably be expected to know this, when his own staff had so negligently kept him in the dark?
If you want to get a sense of how Johnson and his allies will handle Sue Gray’s report on the Downing Street festivities, this was an important clue. It is not that they underestimate the second permanent secretary at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, who has a hard-earned reputation for rigour, integrity and a fearless style of questioning.
They know that, in all probability, her findings will be, at best, hugely embarrassing and, at worst, the sort of thing that would have driven any of Johnson’s predecessors to resign immediately out of a reflexive sense of honour. But this prime minister is completely unlike his predecessors; he is not big on honour, or contrition, or a sense of duty to the greater good.
He trafficks instead in impunity, exemption and evasion. He has made a career out of seeking and – all too often – being granted freedom from accountability for lying, cheating and betrayal. He has been indulged more than any politician of the modern era.
When he doesn’t like the findings of an inquiry, he ignores it – as he did Sir Alex Allan’s report on Priti Patel’s bullying in November 2020, compelling Sir Alex to resign as independent advisor on ministerial standards. When he is unimpressed by international law, he threatens to break it. When he is displeased by the deliberations of Parliament, he prorogues it – unlawfully so.
Crucially, this personal inclination to ignore the rules has coincided with a fundamental change in the way that we do politics, and one to which not everyone has woken up. We are no longer governed by institutions but by networks, primarily digital in form; not by forensics but by feelings.
Indeed – somewhat paradoxically – Number 10 is desperate for the media to focus its attention upon Gray’s report, to treat it as the fork in the road, the hinge if you like, of this political crisis.
They know that, quite correctly, she will act as an evaluator of fact rather than as an arbiter of who should and should not resign. In particular, they are relying on the nuance and sophistication of her language as verbal undergrowth in which to hide. This is the great advantage of being shameless: you can find exoneration almost anywhere.
Whatever Gray has to say, you can expect the PM to repeat the semi-apologies that he has made in the past fortnight when he comes to the House, provisionally on Thursday, to deliver his response. But his principal strategy will be to sow doubt; to prey upon the average Conservative MP’s deep-seated preference for inaction over risk.
Even as Johnson, wide-eyed and artfully dishevelled, promises to clean up Downing Street, turn over a new leaf, reset his government, his lieutenants will be bombarding their fellow Tories in the Commons with WhatsApp messages. Yes, the report’s not too wonderful – but are you really going to send a letter calling for a confidence vote just because of a few garden piss-ups? Are you absolutely sure this is the best way to ensure we win the next election, and that you keep your seat, old boy?
This, at least, is the calculation. Statesmanship, the public interest, common decency: such considerations are playing no part whatsoever in the formulation of Johnson’s survival strategy. If you have heard or read that he is exhausted, fed up with the job, eager for the freedom to convalesce properly from the bout of Covid that nearly killed him two years ago – banish all such rumour from your mind.
Never forget that Johnson is the love-child of Wodehouse and Nietzsche. He may talk like one of Bertie Wooster’s chums at the Drones Club, but he is driven by an implacable will to power. As he said at PMQs last week, reacting to the defection from Conservative to Labour of Christian Wakeford: “[T]he Conservative party won Bury South for the first time in generations under this prime minister, with an agenda of uniting, levelling up and delivering for the people of Bury South, and we will win again in Bury South at the next election under this prime minister” (my italics).
Though ostensibly addressed to Keir Starmer, these words were squarely directed at Johnson’s own backbenchers. If you think I’m going quietly, think again. Remember Maggie saying “I shall fight on, I shall fight to win”? Well, imagine that, only with weapons of mass destruction. If you decide to take me on, with your poncy letters to Sir Graham Brady and your self-righteous interviews on the Today programme, be advised: nobody gets out of here alive.
This is where, in the crudest sense, Johnson has the upper hand: he is willing to go further, pull down more temple walls and scorch more earth than his opponents. In this respect, Sue Gray’s inquiry, though doubtless meticulous, is a procedure from another era, an undertaking that assumes a context of political convention and accountability that simply no longer exists.
The new populist politics that Johnson personifies is altogether different in its practices, behavioural forms and thoroughgoing harshness. In the first place, the governing elite that has formed under this prime minister really does consider itself special and different.
Having risen to power as tribunes of the people versus the elites – initially in the Brexit referendum and then in government – the PM and his acolytes have aggregated to themselves every perk, privilege, and form of patronage they can get their hands on. They have recreated the spirit of 18th-century oligarchy for the digital age.
The parties matter because they so precisely symbolise this powerful sense of entitlement. It is still extraordinary to reflect that, even as NHS workers sweltered in the wards and morgues of the pandemic’s first wave in 2020, Johnson and his team thought it was absolutely fine to “make the most of the lovely weather” and let their hair down in the garden with a few suitcases of booze. And they really did think it was okay: a new and deeply alarming level of hypocrisy in our political class, drained not only of decency but also fatally disconnected from the very public upon whose behalf they have claimed so vigorously to speak.
Second, this is a regime that will use all and any means available to hold on to power. On Thursday, William Wragg, the Tory MP for Hazel Grove, and chair of the public administration and constitutional affairs committee, declared that a “number of MPs have faced intimidation” over their lack of support for Johnson; that the government whips had threatened “to withdraw investments in constituencies funded by the public purse”; and that they were also planting “stories in the press seeking to embarrass those that they suspect of lacking confidence in their prime minister”.
The whips, of course, have always traded in patronage or indicated that it might be withheld from those who fail to observe party discipline. It is no accident that the Chief Whip’s formal title is Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury: since the role acquired meaning in the prelude to the 1832 Reform Act, it has always been connected to preferment, the distribution of honours and jobs, and the management of government largesse.
Nor is the menacing whip a new phenomenon. Trollope’s Phineas Finn is torn off a strip at his own club: “Damn your principles, vote for your party.” In his entertaining memoir, the former Conservative Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, recalls the style of the legendary Tory enforcer, David Lightbown, in the early Nineties: “Look, sonny, one of my ancestors helped finish off King Edward II by shoving a red-hot poker up his arse. Those skills have been passed on down the generations.”
But the allegations made by Wragg – who is now in contact with the Metropolitan Police – are of a different order, and unprecedented in modern times. What he describes is not a disciplinary system, designed to ensure the safe parliamentary passage of government policy. It is the transformation of the whips’ office – with added muscle from ministers loyal to the PM – into a full-blown protection racket, frightening off dissenters with blackmail and threats of withdrawn public subsidy. It is the pork barrel politics of the American system at its worst, combined with the extortion of the street gang.
Wakeford claims that, in 2020, Gavin Williamson, the former Chief Whip, threatened to arrange the withdrawal of funding for a new secondary school in his constituency if he persisted in his criticisms of the government over free school meals. Willamson says he has no recollection of such a conversation. What is clear is that this fresh round of allegations will need to be addressed by another inquiry – and not one headed by a civil servant. Good order in government is one thing; a culture of intimidation, linking personal loyalty to public funding and the explicit threat of blackmail, is quite another.
This culture, third, meshes all too well with the toxin of populist prejudice that, for all the PM’s personal bonhomie, has always characterised the Johnson government. Consider, as a grim case study, Nusrat Ghani’s claim in yesterday’s Sunday Times that she was told her “Muslimness” and her “Muslim woman minister status was making colleagues feel uncomfortable” when she was sacked as a transport minister in 2020.
Mark Spencer, the Chief Whip, has denied that any such remarks were made in his conversation with Ghani. The PM has now referred the matter to the Cabinet Office – something he conspicuously declined to do two years ago when he (absurdly) suggested that Ghani file a complaint with the Conservative Party.
At the very least, Johnson was hideously tone-deaf in dealing so dismissively with the sacked minister’s original allegation. But then, of course, one has to remember that this is the man who, in a Daily Telegraph column in August 2018, wrote that a Muslim woman wearing the niqab resembled “a bank robber” and that it was “absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes”. How seriously do we suppose that a person capable of such scorn would take Ghani’s concerns?
One may smile, and smile, and be a villain: one should never confuse Johnson’s shtick and buffoonery for an absence of cruelty. If it were ever in any doubt, the past two weeks have demonstrated that he will do absolutely anything and sacrifice absolutely anyone in order to cling to the office he has craved all his life.
Last weekend, it was migrants and the BBC that got it in the neck as he sought to bolster his position. This weekend, it was Dan Rosenfield, the PM’s chief of staff, who was briefed against most aggressively; part of the spin most favoured at present by Johnson’s acolytes – that he has been grievously let down by incompetent advisers who have failed to help him run a decent government; to explain to him, for instance, what “a party” is; to show him how doors work; to remind him to breathe; stuff like that.
The notion that Johnson’s premiership can be salvaged by a new team of super-advisers is insulting to the intelligence. Remember when Rosenfield was brought on board in January 2021, after the fall of Dominic Cummings and the Vote Leave caucus? How earnestly we were assured that the zealots had been despatched and that the grown-ups were now moving in to take over and steady the listing ship of state?
Now, it may be Rosenfield’s turn to take the rap. Others, too, will doubtless be purged after Gray’s report. But the problem is not Johnson’s advisers any more than it is (as some contend) Johnson’s wife, Carrie. It is Johnson. This prime minister could assemble a team of advisers composed of the Delphic Oracle, Aristotle, Eleanor Roosevelt, Tom Hagen, Jonathan Powell, Jock Colville, Leo McGarry and Yoda – and he would still be a disaster. Trust me, the problem isn’t the quality of his confidants. It is his own quality – or lack of it.
The greatest curiosity of this crisis is that Johnson, a deeply superstitious man, foresaw it. He knew that the Red Wall seats that he conquered in 2019 were also his most vulnerable flank. Indeed, on 13 December of that year, even as his gang celebrated the biggest Tory win since 1987, he brooded publicly on its vulnerability.
“You may only have lent us your vote, you may not see yourself as a natural Tory,” he said. “And as I think I said 11 years ago to the people of London when I was elected in what was thought of as a Labour city, your hand may have quivered over the ballot paper before you put your cross in the Conservative box. And you may think you will return to Labour next time around. And if that is the case, I am humbled that you have put your trust in me, that you have put your trust in us, and I and we will never take your support for granted.”
But he did, didn’t he? He took it all for granted. He could not help himself. And now a reckoning approaches, at a pace that has yet to be decided, but with a certainty that even he, with all his brazen tricks and restless quest for exemption, cannot long escape.
It will not be clean, dignified or worthy of a supposedly great democratic system. But then, what did we expect? The boy who said he wanted to be World King, indulged, favoured and absolved for so many decades, was never going to give up without a fight. If he can’t have the world, then nobody can.
The Chequers investigation
Tortoise believes that after pre-recording his broadcast 23 March 2020 telling the nation to stay at home, Boris Johnson then commuted between Downing Street and Chequers.
Sensemaker: Johnson’s second home
What just happened
In March 2020 Boris Johnson pre-recorded a broadcast in which he told the country to stay at home. But Tortoise now believes that he then ignored his own advice by moving back and forth between London and Chequers
An open letter to Sue Gray
Tortoise believes that the prime minister travelled to Chequers on 23 March 2020, on the same day he announced the first lockdown. We’re asking Sue Gray to consider this as part of her investigation