Conscience wakes?

June 10, 2022 2 Comments

Of the many analogies used to make sense of Boris Johnson’s inglorious reign, the circus is probably the commonest.  No ordinary circus, of course, but one where witless acrobats fall headlong from their tightropes, lions run amok and maul defenceless children, the ringmaster sulks in his tent, surrounded by cans of lager and lines of coke, and clowns swear, scream and spit at the audience.  Lately some in the audience have stopped roaring with laughter at the insults thrown at them, and started to wonder why they paid to come.  Soon, though, a line will be drawn in the sawdust, the circus will move on, and everything will begin again.

This week, however, a number of the circus backroom staff have said in public that enough is enough.  They don’t mean that the circus should close, as the cruel, anachronistic calamity that it is.  All they call for is the ejection of the ringmaster.  Once he was their wonder-working and world-beating hero, but now they worry that his magic spells are wearing thin.

One of these big top sceptics is a man called John Penrose.  He is MP for Weston-super-Mare and the husband of Dido Harding, who was responsible, you’ll recall, for ‘spaffing’ £37bn of public money on a failed test-and-trace system in the early Covid crisis.  He also held a post as ‘The Prime Minister’s Anti-Corruption Champion’.  On 5 June he wrote a letter to his boss to say that ‘with great regret’ he was resigning this post, on the grounds that Johnson had ignored Sue Gray’s finding of ‘failures of leadership and judgment’ – in his view a clear breach of the ministerial code and the ‘leadership’ requirement of the Nolan principles of public service.  It wouldn’t be ‘honourable or right’, he ends, for him to stay in his post – or for Johnson to remain in his.

Now it would only be fair to acknowledge that Penrose has finally made a successful moral connection, in his letter, between Johnson’s illegal partying, lack of integrity in government and his own compromised position as anti-corruption tsar.  But it would also be fair to ask him, ‘Why, Mr Penrose, has it taken you so long for the penny to drop?’  Was Johnson’s corruption not obvious months, if not years, before?  Did you not notice that Sussex University’s Centre for the Study of Corruption judged in January 2022 that Johnson’s regime was more corrupt than ‘any UK government since the Second World War’?  Were you on holiday when Johnson tried to change the rules to avoid Owen Paterson MP losing his seat because of paid lobbying?  (The answer is no: Penrose voted in favour of changing the rules.)  Were you asleep during Johnson’s personal corruption scandals, the payments for his Caribbean holiday and flat redecoration?

Unkind critics might conclude that considerations of morality (‘right’ and ‘honourable’) have made a suspiciously late appearance in Penrose’s thinking, and that he overlooked or condoned corruption in his own government on many occasions, until it suited him not to.  They might also think the uncharitable thought that Penrose, having despaired of gaining a proper political office under Johnson, judges he’ll have a better chance under a successor.

Another of the circus staff to come out and face the music is Jesse Norman, MP for Hereford, an ex-minister and a previous Johnson admirer.  In a letter written on 6 June he claims Johnson ‘presided over a culture of casual law-breaking’.  He also objects to some of Johnson’s policies, especially on renouncing the Northern Ireland protocol, the ‘ugly’ policy of exiling unwanted people to Rwanda, and the intention to ban ‘noisy’ protests.  Furthermore, he fails to see any strategic ‘mission’ at the centre of Johnson’s government, and accuses Johnson of a presidential style of leadership.  All this, Norman says, is contrary to a ‘proper, decent conservatism’, defined as ‘effective teamwork, careful reform, a sense of integrity, respect for the rule of law and a long-term focus on the public good’.  In summary, he must withdraw his support from Johnson ‘with great sadness’, and with the assurance that his letter doesn’t amount to a leadership bid (he was once thought by some to be leadership material).

Where Penrose’s letter is concise, Norman’s letter is long and rambling.  But he’s just as open as Penrose to the accusation that he’s been a long time coming out.  It’s arguable that MPs feel they have to be discreet about some policy lines of their government they disapprove of.  But on fundamental moral issues there can’t be any justification for silence.  You’d have to be unusually obtuse not to understand that Boris Johnson is a habitual law-breaker.  ‘Presiding over a culture of casual law-breaking’ at Downing Street parties isn’t an unfortunate recent lapse in an otherwise unblemished moral career.  Johnson has considered himself beyond the law for years.  So why is Norman suddenly overcome with ‘great sadness’ now?

The truth is that almost all Tory MPs, whether or not they now support Johnson, have been morally complicit for nearly three years in a regime that has little or no respect for law, the constitution, public ethics, or much else except for its own selfish interests. All because they are desperate to keep their jobs and hang on to unchallenged power.

It would be comforting to think that the entire circus could be swept away into the political gutter at an election.  But, with a feeble official opposition devoid of the principles and policies capable of inspiring hope that things might be fundamentally different, it seems more likely that the circus will be back in town again, its hop-head ringmaster gone and replaced by a new whip-cracker (‘under new management’).  The audiences will flock back, to watch the same old tricks. Bread may become expensive but the circuses never fail.

Comments (2)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Barry Plummer says:

    Totally agree with this post Andrew. Have a look at the above article in today’s Guardian by Aditya Chakrabortty which echos your point here.

  2. Lyndon Jones says:

    Dear Andrew,

    Thanks as always for your thoughtful, articulate analysis.
    Perhaps you and your readers might consider signing this petition, opposing he Public Order bill:

    It’s particularly germane to your comments about ‘under new management’, because this is essentially a re-hash of Priti Patel’s Policing Bill which recently failed in its passage through Parliament. Thanks in advance to anyone who feels able to help with this.
    With best wishes, as always,

Leave a Reply