Friday, 14 January 2022

On Operation Save Big Dog

The dust had settled, and along comes another revelation to kick it all up again. This Friday has had three such stories, prepped to dominate the weekend's papers and news bulletins. Just when it can't get any worse for Johnson, it does. Learning yesterday the booze was flowing before the Queen was forced to sit alone at the funeral of her husband, since then the former head of the Covid taskforce has apologised for attending her leaving do at Downing Street. Then the plan to save Johnson's skin leaked, of which more in a moment, and this evening another Pippa Crerar scoop: wine time Fridays indoors every Friday at Downing Street during restrictions with the Prime Minister's blessing (and, apparently, occasional attendance).

I suppose a Thick of It comparison would be a cliched thing to do, but I've never pretended originality. Number 10 staff splashed out on a fridge to store their capacious prosecco purchases, and would come back from Tesco with suitcases full of bottles. Arranged by the press office, there were drop ins from other departments with one regular being Captain Steve Higham, now commander of HMS Prince of Wales, and parties held for senior figures as they left or to celebrate their departure in absentia. Such as toasting Dominic Cummings's goodbye. It therefore seems the culture of impunity Johnson has contrived to build around himself and his ministers grew to encompass the civil servants at the heart of government, all of it endorsed if not encouraged by the chief rule breaker himself.

And this is where Johnson's get out of jail free card comes in. 'Operation Save Big Dog' means finding civil service patsys who are going to take the fall for their boss. We've already seen how his evasive non-apology tried portraying the regular shindigs as part of everyday work culture in Downing Street, and that these parties were just al fresco working. An argument precisely no one has found convincing, but it gives those Tories unlucky enough to have to defend Johnson to the media something to say. The problem with this utterly stupid and self-serving plan is even if it hadn't leaked, this was transparently the intention when Johnson offered his overwrought apologies to the Commons on Wednesday. The way the Prime Minister plans on styling it out is talking up the need for a restructure, wheel out supportive ministers, affect a contrite tone in public - a real difficulty for a bombastic narcissist like Johnson - and get the favourites to succeed him to back him in public. Liz Truss, sensing her proximity to the big prize, didn't even need to be asked to make a right Charlie of herself.

Does this change anything? The gift of Johnson's future still likes in the hands of Tory MPs, and though while a few have put their no confidence letters in - likely to increase after this weekend - the wider politics makes them nervous. Hope it will go away, the media will get distracted by something else (Barry Gardiner and the alleged Chinese agent, anyone?), or the Tories' allies are going to find opposition politicians guilty of ill-behaviour, like this old story about Keir Starmer getting the front page Mail treatment. Burying specific wrongdoing in a landfill's worth of shit has worked before, but probably not this time.

The longer this goes on the greater the difficulties for the Tories, and the rest of us. What started as a crisis of confidence for Johnson is well on its way to toxifying his party, 1990s style. But the danger is a corrosion of state legitimacy itself. It's clear flouting of the rules wasn't just a Downing Street thing, but common across Whitehall among staff in close proximity to their ministers. Combine this with the studied refusal of the Met to launch an investigation, it doesn't take much for this to solidify into a popular (if not populist) backlash and the problems that poses mainstream politics. But more worrying is what it means for public health advice. Omicron appears to be receding, but the government might bring in restrictions if a new variant emerges or infections pick up again. Except Johnson and his government have completely lost all credibility, and so millions won't pay their advice and rules a blind bit of notice. An outcome that will cause unnecessary disease and, consistent with the rest of their pandemic management, needless deaths.

1 comment:

Mr Profundity Hyperbole said...

Paragraph 3 is perhaps the most important ever written in the English language.