A Humiliating, Omnishambolic, Multi-lane Pile-up
The Mail on Sunday
November 7, 2021.
Boris Johnson is the only person to blame for this humiliating, omnishambolic, multi-lane pile-up.
Why did it happen? What made Boris Johsnon force his MPs through the lobbies in a brazen attempt to overturn the investigation of the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone, whitewash her findings on Owen Paterson – then backtrack and perpetrate perhaps the biggest crisis of his premiership? One explanation can be swiftly dispensed with. It wasn't because Paterson was the victim of a grave injustice.
The investigation into his lucrative – and prohibited – lobbying of Ministers was imperfect. The lack of an appeals process was flawed. And the backdrop – the suicide of his wife Rose – was tragic. But he was guilty as charged. As one Tory MP told me: 'I like Owen. I think we need to look at how the Standards Commissioner operates. But he was bang to rights. He did it.'
Boris knows full well he did it. So the shambolic mismanagement of the past few days was not part of a noble process to save a colleague from an egregious wrong. Nor, to look at the other side of the scales, was it the product of a great conspiracy, as alleged by some of the Prime Minister's critics. They charge that the whole affair was a pre-emptive strike by No 10 to prevent Parliament's watchdog from digging into who paid for the Prime Minister's Downing Street flat refurbishment.
Yes, there is little love lost between Boris and Stone, especially after she found him in breach of Commons rules over a holiday to Mustique, a verdict that was overturned by a cross-party panel of MPs. But the Downing Street flat issue has been examined by the ministerial standards adviser and the Electoral Commission, and no serious wrongdoing has been found. Nor does it appear to be an issue that would fall within Stone's remit. And there is further compelling evidence this saga was not the product of a cunning masterplan. That would have required some actual thought. Clever people would have needed to sit down to make a considered, rational judgment and come up with an actual strategy. And this humiliating, omni-shambolic, multi-lane political pile-up had no such oversight.
To understand what did happen, you have to realise several things. The first is that there is a political black hole at the heart of No 10. Last year, in the space of just a few weeks, the Cabinet Secretary, Chief of Staff, Communications Director and the senior Prime Ministerial adviser all left. As one Minister said: 'There's no one in there who does real politics, who can tap Boris on the shoulder and say, 'Don't be daft. You're not doing that.' '
Neither Dan Rosenfield, the new Chief of Staff, nor Simon Case, the new Cabinet Secretary, has sufficient stature or authority. So the only approximation of serious political architecture at the heart of Whitehall has been built by the Prime Minister's wife Carrie and the loose team of friends she has inserted as advisers. But as the past week has shown, even their grip on events is tenuous.
Though not as tenuous as the grip of the Prime Minister himself. Boris has many political gifts, as his unparalleled string of successes have demonstrated. But those successes are working against him. He's become complacent. Shorn of any serious external political opposition, consistently defying gravity in the opinion polls and bolstered by an unassailable 80-seat majority, he feels can do – and get away with – whatever he likes. It's only four months since he was forced into another humiliating U-turn after trying to dodge Covid isolation when he was pinged. On that occasion the retreat came in hours. This time it came too late.
'He basically thinks he's Henry VIII,' one Minister explained. 'He rules via his courtiers. He doesn't have to worry about any opposition from Labour. So he just carries on governing by whim and decree.'
Some of those courtiers are now firmly in the firing line. Sarah Dines and Andrew Griffith are the Prime Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretaries. They are supposed to act as his 'eyes and ears', reporting back to No 10 on the mood of the parliamentary party, and providing advice on how to manage it. But last week they were doing the opposite. 'They were just going up to people being arrogant and offensive,' one MP told me. 'They were saying, 'This is what you're going to do.' That's not their job. They're supposed to be telling the PM what we're thinking, not telling us what we have to think.'
Others – including allies of the Prime Minister – have tried to lay the blame for the fiasco on Chief Whip Mark Spencer. But I'm told he was against the move, and in the words of one Minister, was 'egged on' by Boris. Another Minister said: 'People are saying this was a failure of whipping. But Mark managed to get the party to march through the lobbies behind something they knew was mad. He did his job fine. He's not the problem.'
A lot of Tory MPs think they know who is. Though they believe Boris has blundered and his authority has been damaged, their anger is directed at Owen Paterson's allies, in particular that group of influential senior backbenchers who christened themselves 'the Spartans'.
'They're at the heart of it,' one younger Tory backbencher told me. 'They've been swaggering around with this 'I'm a Spartan. I run the Tory Party' arrogance. And they've finally been found out. This is on them. It's their disaster.'
It may well be. But there's a reason the Spartans have been bombastically bragging about running the party. Which is that over the past few years, they've been doing precisely that. It was the Spartans who pushed David Cameron towards a Brexit referendum. It was the Spartans who ousted Theresa May, opening the door for Boris. And it was the Spartans who led the charge into the valley of death on behalf of Paterson – with the Prime Minister trailing forlornly in their wake.
As one Minister said: 'Boris knows Starmer can't touch him. He knows the public still like him. So he calculated the only real danger to him was upsetting the Spartans. And this was his way of trying to keep them on board.' That's no longer a viable strategy. As one Cabinet Minister said: 'It's over for the Spartans. They're done. What you're going to see over the next few months is the rest of the parliamentary party starting to reassert itself. The centrist MPs. The younger MPs. They're going to say, 'You had a good run. But it's our time now.' '
That may be wishful thinking. Although they are chastened by the events of the past few days, the Spartans are not likely to slink away into the shadows. And worryingly for No 10, they harbour resentment towards a Prime Minister they think abandoned them, and one of their own, in their hour of need.
But it's not really about them. Or their colleagues. Or even Owen Paterson. The blame for the shambles of the past week rests squarely on the shoulders of the Prime Minister. His complacency. His willingness to tolerate – indeed preside over – dysfunctionality in Downing Street. His ceding of control of his party to factions and cliques.
Why did this happen? It happened because Boris let it happen. He can't afford to let it happen again.
© Dan Hodges / The Mail On Sunday