Molly Pollock takes a look through the evidence piling up against Johnson as the Tories become the ever disunited party of government and stretch the agony out for at least another week.
There weren’t any parties. They were working in the garden. No, he didn’t attend any parties. Yes, he did but he thought it was work and only stayed for twenty five minutes, then an admission he didn’t understand the rules that he and members of his government had introduced. Next came what appeared like a contrite apology to Beth Rigby of Sky News. Following that, there was the disgraceful bouncing, smirking response whilst Ian Blackford spoke in the House of Commons of the 150,000 plus people who had lost their lives to Covid 19.
Johnson – the Teflon Tory
First the feeling was that Johnson was done for, had reached the end of his tortuous prime ministerial road. That he and the culture he had spawned was finished – a culture in which Johnson believed he could get away with anything, could elicit donations for redecoation, expensive holidays, taking people for fools whilst he dismantled the UK’s parliamentary democracy and welfare state. The Teflon Tory who just laughed off criticism, burbled excuses and was believed by so many because he was a nice guy, wasn’t he – one people could relate to. Difficult to believe but…
The abject apology in the Beth Rigby interview drew sympathy, some believing he was a crushed politician, a man who had tried his best and succeeded in so much. Like delivering Brexit. A Brexit few seem to realise is disastrous for the UK economy and for everyone who lives in these isles. Others believe he has guided the country safely through the pandemic, whilst forgetting the 150,000 plus who have lost their lives and those whose health is left permanently damaged by having the virus. But never mind that. Boris has a nice smile, a jovial personality and he makes them feel good. His bouncy performance at PMQs yesterday indicated to many that he knew he would survive the little problems at present besetting him.
Plus of course there’s the troubling question of a replacement. Rishi Sunak is thought the most likely, but many are aware Sunak wouldn’t go down well in the red wall seats the Tories are desperate to retain. Liz Truss has been working hard behind the scenes in an effort to persuade fellow MPs that she’s the best choice. But so far no real front runner has emerged to enthuse the troops. For many Johnson is the best by far – a vote winner they are lothe to replace, and local elections are fast approching in May. Best by far to shut the present controversy down and concentrate on winning, or at least not losing too many council seats.
So it was widely thought the Sue Gray report would be a whitewash, with the UK government refusing to commit to publishing the evidence. It was therefore anticipated that Johnson would bounce back and Partygate would be swept under a convenient Downing Street carpet. That was until this morning when three pieces of news again saw Johnson’s premiership tenure hanging on a shoogly peg. A series of tweets from Robert Peston, Political Editor of ITV News and Alex Thomson, Chief Correspondent of Channel 4 News, set a match to the heather.
Peston tweeted: “I understand Sue Gray has found the email from a senior official to PM’s principle private secretary Martin Reynolds warning him the 20 May party should not go ahead, as per Cummings’s revelation and my blog below. So huge…“
Peston in his ITV blog (now updated) expands. He says Sue Gray has asked to speak to this person and that the person will tell her that Martin Reynolds, the Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary, asked why the party should be cancelled and was told this should be done as it broke the rules. Reynolds is thought to have believed it would be more embarassing to cancel than go ahead. The person concerned couldn’t recall whether he had advised the PM that the party should not go ahead but thought he had.
Never mind evidence, assurances will do
Then came the tweets from Alex Thomson explaining why the Met was refusing to investigate Partygate. The GLW referred to is the Good Law Project.
So, two down and one to go…and not looking good for British democracy.
There is a saying that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but scorned and angry politicians must surely score highly. This morning Tory rebel MP William Wragg, a Brexiter who was in favour of Johnson resigning, made a statement as Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee claiming ministers are blackmailing Tory MPs planning to remove Boris Johnson, and that rebels are facing pressure and intimidation from ministers, including threats of damaging publicity. He makes accusations of breaches of the ministerial code by threats to withdraw money from constituencies and to leak stories about individual rebels. Wragg says that the reports of which he’s aware would appear to constitute blackmail and urges anyone threatened to go to the Police. [Presumably the Met Police who… well, see above]
Wragg is a also joint Vice Chair of the 1922 committee whose chair, Sir Graham Brady, is in receipt of letters calling for Johnson’s resignation, or those that make it to him.
According to a BBC report a Number 10 spokesperson said it was “not aware of any evidence” for Mr Wragg’s allegations. However one rebel MP apparently told the BBC that some MPs had been threatened with funding cuts, whilst an impending reappraisal of parliamentary boundaries had also been used to stifle rebellion.
The new Labour MP, Christian Wakeford, who deserted the Tories yesterday, also weighed in. According to BBC North West Wakeford backed up William Wragg’s allegations about rebel MPs being threatened by whips, saying he was assured plans for a new high school in his constituency could be scrapped unless he voted a certain way. A certain way presumably being in support of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister.
A name mentioned in bullying allegations is the government chief whip, the Rt Hon Mark Spencer MP. The Government Chief Whip has an official residence at 12 Downing Street, but his office is currently located at 9 Downing Street. So, like Rishi Runak, another Downing Street resident with an office in the complex who may have been aware of parties but whom no-one appears to have asked.
An uncomfortable spotlight
Of course such practices aren’t new, and have probably been utilised since parliament’s formation, but Wragg has shone a spotlight on them at a very uncomfortable time for the government. The whip system is said to rely on bullying and intimidation to bring about wanted results. One tweeter referred to a story about former Tory MP Willie Whitelaw relating how information was recorded by whips in a black book – a dirt book where information gleaned, whether true or not, was recorded for possible future use.
In response to the allegations First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon tweeted:
“Let’s be clear: if Tories are threatening to withhold public investment from constituencies as a way of keeping MPs in line then, yes, that’s blackmail & intimidation – but it is also corruption.
The moral decay at the heart of Johnson’s govt may be even worse than we thought“
What a difference a day makes! Yesterday it was looking as if Johnson would survive, though wounded, to burble on. Today the allegations about Partygate have been widened out to indicate possible corruption in the UK’s political system and in the Metropolitan Police.