The writer, a former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, is a Harvard senior fellow
What was he thinking? When Boris Johnson strode into parliament on Wednesday, cloaked in self-righteousness in defence of the Conservative politician Owen Paterson, he was actually as naked as the Emperor in the fairytale. Ordering his MPs to vote against sanctioning Paterson for what the standards committee had called “egregious” lobbying, was a spasm of over-reach. This isn’t the first time Johnson has gone too far. But it is the first time he has alienated so many of his own cheerleaders.
On Wednesday, the newest Tory MPs were among those who had the courage to defy the whip and shout that the emperor has no clothes. Jill Mortimer, who won her Hartlepool seat only five months ago, said the Prime Minister was making “a colossal misjudgement”. If she could see it, why couldn’t Boris Johnson?
Trying to change both rules and referee, in the middle of the game never works in a country which likes to play by the book. Having made over half a million pounds from his contracts with two companies, Paterson’s utter failure to show any contrition — he has insisted that he would “do it again tomorrow” — didn’t look like someone playing straight. It didn’t take long for the Prime Minister to spot this, perform a U-turn and dump Paterson back in the soup, from where he sensibly resigned.
The saga sums up much that is wrong with this government. Over-hasty decisions, a cavalier attitude to convention and a deep cynicism which assumes that, with a weak opposition, nothing matters much. Less than 24 hours after plotting to replace the standards committee with a new one which would have been dominated by the governing party, the leader of the Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, declared primly that it had been wrong to try to change the rules for one individual, and that he would start cross-party talks on reforming the system. As if nothing untoward had happened.
Many of Johnson’s antics look like farce, which is why he gets away with them. But this one has a strong element of tragedy. Paterson is a grieving widower, whose wife killed herself during the standards investigation which should not, surely, have taken two years. Had he accepted the committee’s sanction and appealed to his constituents for sympathy, he would surely have got it. Instead he upped the ante, claiming to be the victim of a system that accused him of carrying out paid advocacy when he was actually trying to alert ministers and officials to the health dangers of certain products.
Paterson may be naive, rather than corrupt. But he broke the rules, and the matter should have ended there. The reason it did not is the peculiar combination of preening and paranoia that now grips the right wing of the Conservative party. Several MPs who voted with the government on Wednesday told me that they had done so because they believe Kathryn Stone, the standards commissioner, has a vendetta against Brexiters. That is the sincere view of former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore, Paterson’s close friend. It also chimes with Johnson’s irritation at being pursued by the commissioner over his own lapses — including his tardy disclosure that the Goldsmiths, one of whom is a government minister, funded his Spanish holiday. While each individual case can be shrugged off, they are starting to add up to something which looks like a desire to evade scrutiny.
On Tuesday night, an exhausted Johnson left the climate summit in Glasgow to fulfil a longstanding invitation to dine with Moore and some of his other old mates from Telegraph days. Around the table there was huge sympathy for Paterson, whose daughter had just written a heartfelt article in his defence. There was also a feeling that Paterson’s case was a symbol of prejudice against a group of people who, despite having won the Brexit referendum and achieved a huge parliamentary majority, still see themselves as underdogs. Only this can explain why Johnson agreed to impose a 3-line whip to save a man who was neither a minister, nor a friend, nor indispensable.
Governments never like being scrutinised by commissioners — by their nature they are going to seem overzealous. New Labour, in its pomp, attacked the parliamentary commissioner Elizabeth Filkin. But in this instance, I find it hard to fault the report — or the unanimous verdict of the committee which included several Conservatives.
The system clearly could be improved. But zoom out, and there’s an easy way for politicians to protect themselves. Don’t take jobs that might break the rules. Frank Field, the former Labour MP, whom I have been honoured to work with, wouldn’t have dreamt of taking such a contract. He was too busy standing up for his Birkenhead constituents. He is still trying to improve the world, right to the end. Last week, a House of Lords debate was electrified by a message that he sent to the effect that he, a devout Christian who is terminally ill, has changed his mind about assisted dying. That is what politics is for.
What’s the moral of this story? With a huge majority and an opposition so feeble that it couldn’t run a whelk stall — or would hesitate to try, in case whelks were upset — this government is drifting towards what Quintin Hogg once called “elective dictatorship”. Luckily, its own ranks feel the danger. When the Emperor paraded through the streets, the crowd went along with the pretence — until the bluff was called. We see through these antics — and Johnson’s next task is to convince his furious MPs that he does too.
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