Friday 3 March 2023

The Nifty Shade of Gray

The Privileges Committee findings into Boris Johnson's conduct during partygate must have sat in Labour's media grid for a while. Quite why Keir Starmer chose yesterday to confirm that he'd offered Sue Gray, who oversaw the initial inquiry into the affair, a job as his chief of staff is quite the head scratcher. For a brief moment on Friday morning, the news allowed the Tory press to put a lot of flak into the air. Gray's report was "tainted". Gray was a Labour Party stooge all along. Gray had stitched Johnson like a kipper. Yadda yadda, snore snore. Thankfully, we don't need whingeing Tories to tell us what Gray said back then. Her report is freely available. And for those who care to look, what we find is a circumspect piece of work. She blamed a "drinking culture" for what happened during the darkest days of Covid, for which no one was responsible. Stories of parties in the Downing Street flat were passed over in silence, and Johnson didn't receive so much as a tap on the wrist. The discretion her report displayed allowed Johnson to cling on for a few months more. She had the opportunity to finish him, but didn't.

It's this that attracts Starmer. As a "respected" senior civil servant, Gray would be more than capable of prepping shadow cabinet members and their spads for government. But more than that she respects state authority. Given the chance to plunge the knife into the most ridiculous, reckless Prime Minister this country has ever seen (that was until his successor came along), she didn't. The proprietaries and conventions of the government/civil service relationship mattered more, and that's certainly something Starmer can respect. Especially when his political project begins and ends with the the modernisation of the state.

Still, letting Gray's appointment slip just as the Privileges Committee were about to hammer Johnson is another case of bad timing. Readers might recall that happy time a year ago when partygate was all the rage. Speculation was rife about backbench letters flying into Graham Brady's PO Box. Johnson was wounded and he might have been put out of his misery. And then Starmer welcomed Christian Wakeford into the fold. He might have held out a couple of weeks to make sure the infighting was as bloody as possible, but instead it reminded the Tories that they were behind in the polls and Johnson was the best they got. There were even reports of MPs reaching into the 1922 Committee's mailbag to pull their letters. Creating an unnecessary distraction likely to backfire and help get your opponents off the hook? It's happened twice now, so something to watch out for as Starmer approaches and when he enters Downing Street.

Luck was on Labour's side this time. The Tories crying over Gray's new job were all haplessly compromised by singing her praises and telling everyone in the media how respected and impartial she was at the time. And, in the end, shouting about bias didn't stop the damaging findings propagating into the wild. At a party to see off a staff member, Johnson quipped this was "probably the most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK right now." Johnson was a regular as "wine and cheese Fridays". New photos of Johnson appeared with champagne stacked on the table, and transcripts of Number 10 spinners discussing how to kill stories about the "PM having a piss up". And in parliamentary, almost Delphic language the committee concludes Johnson may have misled Parliament on more than one occasion. Do you think? Are we expected to believe his denials that he knew anything about parties when, time and again, he was getting stuck into festivities?

How has Johnson responded to the committee? With as much chutzpah as he can muster. He said he didn't intend to mislead the Commons, was not aware he was breaking any rules, and that the investigation had not produced any evidence to suggest otherwise. If you're caught red handed, why not style it out? It worked the first time for Johnson, and he would have got away with it had he handled the Christopher Pincher case differently. Johnson is surely hoping Tories on the committee will see him evade the indignity of a suspension recommendation and with it a possible by-election. Those in the associations, who've been flexing their muscles and deselecting MPs of late, might focus their minds towards leniency. Johnson has admitted his time in front-line politics are over, but his fans (and Nadine Dorries) are hoping otherwise.

Which brings us to another delicious dilemma for Rishi Sunak. The last time the suspension of a Tory MP came before the Commons, it cause a a spot of bother and a famous by-election loss. With Johnson and his egregious rule breaking, Sunak can whip to protect him and cop a load of electoral and reputational damage, or hang him out to dry and brace the Tories for civil war. Starting the week with a triumph, the Tories finish with the embarrassment of Matt Hancock's WhatsApp leaks and Johnson's blatant lying. With friends like these, does Sunak need any more enemies?


David said...

Crikey we seem to have the worst *politicians* ever. Can't see Wilson or Blair clunking into that one. Anyway, still several points ahead but Starmer seems determined to go for the score draw.

Ken said...

Extraordinary luck for Sunak. Johnson is toast just as the new NI agreement is finished. “Jacob Reese Mogg is slowly dying on Channel 4” tweets Campbell. So only him and Mark Francois “I’m not stupid” he claimed, apparently, in one interview, and maybe Cash and Bone, (Victorian legal firm) to stand up for the original protocol. So, no election this year.