Dignity-wise, I see the Johnson administration has moved to the stage of a man in a dirty tracksuit saying he’ll do a polygraph. Dominic Cummings’ insistence that the prime minister is lying, and that he’ll swear to it, makes you wonder if Sue Gray is really the person to run the inquiry into Downing Street parties. In many ways Jeremy Kyle has the more relevant experience, though of course it would be the first time the presenter had stood in judgment on people lavished with every possible economic, educational and social advantage in life.
A number of anonymous sources have confirmed Cummings’ account to the BBC, giving rise to the sort of unfortunate news coverage that is in no way behind Boris Johnson’s plan to smash the national broadcaster like a mirror that won’t tell him he’s the fairest of them all. And we’ll come to so-called Operation Red Meat in a second.
In the meantime, I am enjoying the dead look in all the ministers’ eyes as they are seconded to defend Johnson in the face of what might soon become the indefensible. Instead of calling this Form a Square Around the Shitster, Johnson’s allies have reportedly gone with Operation Save Big Dog, a name that just underscores the impression of No 10 as a stag do gone badly wrong. You know the plot: some inadequate guys mount a desperate rearguard action to escape the problem of a dead stripper/missing groom/pub crawl that has somehow made them the target of Armenian gangsters.
Anyway, on to Operation Red Meat, the attempt to pacify mutinous backbenchers with two minutes’ hate. For more than 10 years, Conservative governments wishing to kneecap the BBC have fallen back on one question they always believe is rhetorical: why does this or that presenter get paid more than the prime minister? Weirdly, no one’s tried that line yet this time. Can’t think why. But we know how these things work, so it won’t be long before secretary of state for culture wars Nadine Dorries is out there demanding to know why Zoe Ball or whoever gets paid more than Boris Johnson.
I guess the minor points of difference are that Zoe’s very good at her job, people like her and she doesn’t hold her listeners in total contempt. But given how deeply most politicians struggle with the very basic showbiz concept of “talent”, let’s put it another way: did Zoe’s indecision lead to the deaths of thousands of people, cause the entire economy to be shut down way longer than it needed to be and preside over a multibillion-pound culture of cronyism? Did Zoe’s producer break lockdown rules to drive a 60-mile round trip to test their eyesight? Is Zoe a career liar, whose pathological mendacity is now tearing at the entire fabric of trust in politics, and even the very notion of government by consent, in ways that will last for all of us long past her departure from her current role?
In a word: NO. To all of those. Indeed, maybe those political brains who never tire of telling us what moral bankruptcy is “priced in” with Boris Johnson should try to understand that an absence of moral bankruptcy is also priced into the salaries of many of Britain’s best-loved broadcasters. If they still can’t wrap their heads around these market rates, they should at least rest assured it’s the same in other countries – even the most ruthlessly commercial. Donald Trump earned $427m for his years hosting The Apprentice, and a mere $1.6m for his years in the White House, hosting what is starting to look like the penultimate season of the United States of America.
On, then, to the rest of the plan to get Boris Johnson out of his latest hole. Alongside the existential attack on the BBC, most of Operation Red Meat sounds like the sort of will-this-do “initiative” you’d come up with when you were too hungover to show any actual initiative. For instance, it’s very difficult to imagine the idea of processing asylum seekers “in Rwanda or Ghana” being floated by someone other than a smirking Westminster ironist who’s just boshed a pint of prosecco and broken a swing. The last time the government tried this tack, the nation of Albania seemed oddly unwilling to play the role of “symbolic shithole”, and declined the chance to be part of the quarter-arsed plan. So let’s hope that Downing Street is quite far down the road in serious discussions with both Rwanda and Ghana, otherwise even mentioning them feels like some imperious ghoul is simply coming up with the sort of countries they reckon the right people will sneer at.
Ultimately, though, there is something to the whole of Johnson’s “Red Meat” operation that feels suddenly telling about a man who has hitherto successfully presented himself as a can-do, supremely positive kind of guy. Namely, it’s all desperately negative. Strip away Johnson’s famous boosterism, and you are left with a series of hit jobs on things. All very well for a newspaper columnist – indeed, it is the stock in trade – but he is the prime minister. Even allowing for the pandemic, it is becoming unavoidably clear: Johnson has been unable to make the leap from critic to artist.
Destroying the BBC, forcibly repelling migrants, voter suppression when we don’t have a problem with voter fraud, a war on judges, unpicking his own Brexit deal … Johnson is really a wrecker disguised as a builder. I know he occasionally floats the idea of a sea-bridge or an estuary airport, but we all know those never happen. He knows how to break things, but not how to make things. The policies that will actually be his legacy are sunderings and squanderings and underminings, in whose ruins he has failed to make something new and positive. In recent weeks, we’ve seen even plenty of diehard Brexiteers turning on Johnson, and lamenting that the guy who promised them sunlit uplands has failed to capitalise or deliver on any of it. Those who believe the opportunities are there can see that nothing is happening with this prime minister.
In the long- and medium-terms, then, Boris Johnson feels pretty done for. But no one should rule out some short-term survival strategies. I keep picturing a scenario in which Gray’s report is harsh but not a horror show, a verdict that Johnson takes on someone else’s chin. At that point, what better move to pull than to appoint one Sue Gray to the vacant position of permanent secretary at No 10 – a role she’d surely prefer to being second permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office. This would allow Johnson to declare that he’d brought an enforcer right inside the tent, to keep him on the straight and narrow. It would be an epic sleight of hand – but then, those are really all he’s ever had.