An edifying week in the government of Britain, a country run by the third prize in a competition to build Winston Churchill out of marshmallows. Yup, this man is our sorry lot: this pool-float Targaryen, this gurning English Krankie cousin, this former child star still squeezing himself into his little suit for coins. The sole bright spot for Boris Johnson is that furious Tory MPs are currently only comparing him to the nursery rhyme Duke of York. Still, give it time.
On, then, to the unforced blunderrhoea of the Owen Paterson affair and its fallout. The sheer full-spectrum shitshow of it makes sense when you understand two things: the Carl von Clownewitzes behind the government’s shameful “strategy” for sweeping aside a vital democratic check on corruption; and the fact that for Johnson, none of it was to do with Owen Paterson. The departing MP for North Shropshire was simply useful for the prime minister’s personal goals – until he wasn’t.
We’ll deal with the second point first. By far the most consequential investigation currently approaching Kathryn Stone’s in-tray concerns the man already investigated more times than any other MP in the past three years by the standards commissioner: one Boris Johnson. Once an Electoral Commission probe into the same business has reported, a parliamentary standards investigation is widely expected to look at the extravagant refurbishment of Johnson’s Downing Street flat, how it was paid for, how the public was told it was paid for, when and in what order they were told it, what the PM’s wet fish cabinet secretary (Simon Case) and pet fish “standards adviser” (Christopher Geidt) were told – and a whole lot of other difficult questions that have the prime minister sweating like The Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill on Grand Designs. Or like Theresa May in a field of wheat. Or simply like Boris Johnson being asked a straight question to which the answer can’t be, “She’s just a friend, I swear.” Take your pick.
It’s odd – given his hideously negligent mismanagement of the pandemic – that many Westminster experts believe the flat refurbishment has the greater potential to damage Johnson with voters. But there it is. There’s no accounting for taste, neither in red lines nor soft furnishings. Perhaps it’s because most normal voters, who simply want £840-a-roll gold wallpaper and handcrafted rattan backscratchers and so on, pay for such things themselves when the bills are presented.
At least seven months and a lot of press reports later, Johnson eventually reimbursed the taxpayer £58,000 for the flat makeover. But that isn’t the end of discussions on the matter, and you can quite see why the obliteration of the standards commissioner ASAP might seem so appealing. (No 10 insists the two are unrelated.)
Anyway, we move on to the personnel involved in this week’s epic fail, with the ringleaders being Johnson himself, Tory chief whip Mark Spencer, and leader of the house Jacob Rees-Mogg. I don’t know if Johnson knows anything at all about classical history and the ancient world – he wears his learning so lightly, it’s just impossible to tell – but I think you’d stop shy of hailing this particular brains trust as the third triumvirate. Even given how badly the second one turned out.
Quite why Johnson, the Conservative party, and indeed wider society continue to tolerate Rees-Mogg being in any sort of position of responsibility or judgment is anyone’s guess. The justification that he has some kind of yoof “following” feels desperately 2017, a relic of a time when this country’s ruling class could afford irony. Lavishly inept, the Moggster convinces about as much as an English toff from an early-90s American movie, played by some beta Derek Nimmo.
I never quite understand why the Grenfell-victim-blaming, frontbench-lolling Rees-Mogg is so keen to cite his Nanny in public. It’s like someone defecating in the middle of your drawing room floor while telling you which finishing school they attended. And if Nanny wishes to sue me for saying Jacob turned out atrociously, then I’d be very pleased to see her down the Strand for four days of courtroom fun.
As for Johnson’s other consigliere in all this, Spencer, he’s done an absolute Bismarck. The ship, unfortunately – not the diplomatic genius. His cunning plan to overhaul the standards regime has been shelled, torpedoed and scuttled, and is now at rest 15,000 feet under the Atlantic.
It is genuinely beyond comprehension that Spencer failed to predict that opposition parties would simply refuse to support the government’s new standards stitch-up: a committee chaired by John Whittingdale (who was himself once investigated by the standards committee over a trip to the MTV awards in Amsterdam with his girlfriend, a dominatrix sex worker). There may well be toe fungus with more of a tactical clue than Spencer. You can quite see how he is being wishfully lined up as the second fall guy of the week.
The first, of course, was Owen Paterson, who was absolutely bang-to-rights on the breach of rules, but who has clearly been through the most unspeakable tragedy and should have been handled thousands of per cent more sensitively and intelligently by his friends.
However, none of those friends was Boris Johnson, who last indulged in male friendship some time around the John Major administration, and now feels it only as the twitch of a phantom limb. Johnson’s very much the best man who lets you down on the morning of the wedding. “Mate, is it today? Fuck! I’m an idiot. No mate, can’t do it. I’m still in Verbier. Gutted I won’t be able to try to shag her at the reception now. Anyway, have a good one.”
All of which makes the prime minister’s statement on Paterson’s resignation one for the do-me-a-favour files. “I am very sad parliament will lose the services of Owen Paterson,” this ran, “who has been a friend and colleague of mine for decades.” Mmm. If that’s the case, how come your friend reportedly only found you were pulling the rug out from under him when a BBC reporter phoned him in the supermarket, a U-turn which could realistically only lead to his resignation a few short hours later?
Let’s play out with how the British prime minister spent the eve of this shameful vote. Boris Johnson had left his own climate conference on a private jet, incidentally, to have dinner at the Garrick Club with the longtime climate denialist Charles Moore. Also incidentally, Moore used to be Johnson’s editor when he published his various fabrications about the EU. Incidentally – again – Johnson fairly recently sought to install Moore as chairman of the BBC. (Moore has, incidentally, previously been a licence-fee refusenik). Still incidentally, Moore is a real friend of Owen Paterson’s, and has been a significant advocate for his foolhardy defence …
We sadly have no space for any more of the incidentals, incestuous connections, hypocrisies and potential stitch-up attempts in this single meeting between two chaps in a men-only club. But then, all that really needs to be said is that this is Boris Johnson’s Britain. We just live in it.