Thursday 1 June 2023

Sunak's Attack on the Covid Inquiry

When Rishi Sunak was coronated as the leader of the Conservative Party and conscious of his immediate predecessors, he said his government would embrace "integrity, professionalism, and accountability". After the events of the last few days, even dyed-in-the-wool Tory supporters would have difficulty maintaining this facade. Since last week when the Cabinet Office notified the police about more alleged rule-breaking by Boris Johnson, Sunak has been extremely reticent about handing government material over to the Covid Inquiry. The is an inquiry his government set up, appointed the personnel, and determined the remit of. So opposed Sunak is that he outright refused to hand over requested material, stating that much of it was "irrelevant" and would inconveniently compromise confidences, high level discussions, etc. etc.

The government was given until 4pm today to furnish the Inquiry chair, Baroness Heather Hallett with the relevant WhatsApp messages, diary entries, and everything else. Sensing an opportunity to embarrass the Prime Minister, even at the cost of his own self-preservation, Johnson unilaterally declared he'd be making available the evidence he has that Sunak would sooner keep under wraps. The deadline came and went, and there was no document dump. Instead, the the government announced it was taking the Inquiry to court to prevent the release of the messages. This is a complete waste of time for two reasons. Baroness Hallett has acted entirely within the powers Sunak granted her inquiry. She is the arbiter of what is and isn't relevant under the powers the Tories determined, and no judge is going to find her at fault. Second, the government don't have to fire up the lawyers anyway. As Paul notes, Sunak could intervene to "refine" the terms of the Inquiry. There would be a political hit, but surely not as damaging as the theatre of dragging it out in court.

I've long argued that Sunak is politically flat-footed. He doesn't know the state of play on the backbenches, how to or when to play up to the yellowing grassroots of the Tory party, nor when to put his briefcase forward. Except when the situation is glaring and obvious. Is taking on the Covid Inquiry one of those occasions? Yes and no. Sunak copped it for last week's Cabinet Office argy-bargy among Johnson supporters, and so turning around and now to protect him and his allies might take the sting out of the internal opposition. If that means falling in the polls, keeping his troops quiescent for now is a worthwhile trade off.

But there are wider concerns to worry about. During the acute phase of the pandemic, as is well known Johnson was resistant to taking measures that would have saved tens of thousands of lives. But he was not alone in this. Nearly the entirety of the Tory party whittled away at the restrictions circumstance forced upon the government, not least our current Prime Minister and his recklessly stupid Eat Out to Help Out scheme. Or, as Matt Hancock rightly put it, "Eat out to help the virus get about". The conversations about that policy, around Sunak's very early attempts to cut short the Jobs Guarantee scheme, and what really drove their haste to ease restrictions as quickly as they could get away with finds almost the entire senior cadre of the party, briefcase or not, on the hook for the public health disaster they exacerbated. The last thing Sunak wants is for his own wilful ignorance and lack of seriousness splashed across the front pages day after day.

Lastly, there's the question of authority. Sunak believes his position in the party is weaker than it actually is, and therefore has to be seen to face down every demand made of him. Here he's not just copying Johnson's premiership, but Tory statecraft in general. At least since the blessed Thatcher entered Number 10. No reverse gear, my way or the highway, the 40-year authoritarian turn in politics finds a hapless Prime Minister putting his fingers in his ears and refusing to budge. Because in his mind, once he's said no to something - workers' pay rises, helping with the cost of living crisis, uprating benefits last year, and in this case abiding by the law - going back on it would be fatal to his premiership and finish his career off. And, for once, Sunak's dull instincts do not betray him. John Major and Theresa May were hopelessly hindered by ending up as authoritarians without authority. If Sunak is not seen sticking to his guns, then his fate won't be entirely dissimilar to theirs.

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Blissex said...

«During the acute phase of the pandemic, as is well known Johnson was resistant to taking measures that would have saved tens of thousands of lives.»

With the full support and commitment of Starmer's New New Labour. Because test-trace-isolate was seen as "collectivist" in most "Washington Consensus" states, and of course by main UK parties too.

Jim Denham said...

I'd agree with the overall thrust of this post and would concur that simply speaking on a platform with Ken Loach should not be a disciplinary matter. But it's not true that accusations of antisemitism against Loach are "spurious".

Loach's record includes endorsement of Jim Allen’s antisemitic play “Perdition” in 1987 and refusal to condemn Holocaust denial in 2017 (only to say that his comments had, of course, been misrepresented).

Jim Denham said...

My comment (above) of course applies to the post immediately above this one. My mistake!