Watching Dominic Raab react to Simon McDonald’s bombshell letter live on air this morning was like watching a character in a movie discover he’s been dead all along. Even as the secretary of state for justice was touring the studios pushing the latest Frankenstein’s monster of a line on what No 10 knew – and when – about multiply accused sex pest Chris Pincher, the former head of the diplomatic service was releasing a letter to the parliamentary standards commissioner blowing the whole thing apart. There had been formal complaints in 2019 about the man Johnson went on to promote; they were investigated and upheld; and Johnson was briefed in person about the investigation and outcome. “You get to the point when you have to do the right thing,” observed McDonald later, with rather deadly mildness.
And yet, do you? The great tragedy of those who work for Boris Johnson is their failure to remotely grasp the naked contempt in which he holds them. When Johnson was in hospital with Covid, Rishi Sunak fixed the cameras with big eyes and quavered: “The prime minister is not only my colleague and boss, but also my friend.” I wonder if he still thought that after his wife’s tax arrangements got tactically leaked? During that same hospital stay, Dominic Raab deputised for Johnson, to whom Raab also kept referring to as not just his boss, but “my friend”. This was rather poignant then, but sensationally more so now. Dominic, Dominic, Dominic … WAKE UP. When Johnson is finally prised from office, let me assure you that he will never actively choose to see you socially ever again. The prime minister is not your friend. The prime minister is the guy who sent you out on multiple media outlets this morning to advance yet another pack of lies for him, leaving you once again upstaged by your own throbbing forehead vein. Raab did not feature in this morning’s cabinet footage, tellingly rushed out by Il Big Dog. Maybe he was having his knuckles bandaged after having put his fist through a wall.
It really is one of the more grotesque cosmic ironies of the age that any of this cabinet feel able to pronounce on anything at all when they continue to allow this shitshow to play out week in, week out. Yet they’ve always got a view, haven’t they, about the brave stands that other, infinitely less advantaged people should be taking. Take Liz Truss. This is a secretary of state who actively encouraged even militarily untrained Britons to travel to Ukraine and take up arms in an actual war – yet who is somehow herself too cowardly to even make a move against Boris Johnson, no matter what lies pile up, what ferrets are reversed and what byelections are lost. Imagine thinking inexperienced young men should walk into Russian artillery fire, but being too wet yourself to even call time on a guy currently pulling in a net popularity rating of minus 21%. And still, apparently, nurturing ambitions to lead your country at some point in the not-too-distant future. Honestly, what is wrong with Liz? Let’s definitely not make her prime minister and be forced to live through the more detailed answer to that question.
Quite how anyone in this current cabinet reckons they should be taken seriously as a potential leader, having hung around for 2022’s full-spectrum debasement of public life by this prime minister, is anyone’s guess – but 80% of any future hustings should be asking them to explain how it has anything to do with “leadership qualities”. Spoiler: there is no good explanation, and I’m already training my eyeballs so they don’t get roll-strain when Ben Wallace or whoever starts retrofitting some bollocks about serving your country, whoever asks you. Any number of this lot have bottled it time and again. The work of rescuing trust in politics from the gutter into which Johnson has led it will take years and probably decades. If you stood by and enabled it, it’s on you too.
Appropriately for a prime minister whose Churchill biography was riddled with jaw-dropping errors, No 10’s entire firefighting strategy now seems inspired by that fake Winston Churchill exchange when a socialite is supposed to have conceded she’d sleep with him for five million pounds, prompting him to ask if she’d sleep with him for a fiver, at which point she demands furiously to know what he takes her for. We’ve already established what you are, Churchill is meant to have said (but didn’t) – now we’re just haggling over the price. This, but for the government line on what it knew about Pincher. We’ve already established the fact that Boris Johnson employs people he knows have been accused of potential sex offences; now we’re just haggling about which types of sex offences he even pretends to give a toss about.
There are highly unstable radioactive isotopes that deteriorate less quickly than a No 10 line. In five days, on Pincher alone, we’ve had the prime minister knowing nothing about it and declaring the matter closed. That didn’t hold; Pincher belatedly lost the whip. We’ve had Thérèse Coffey saying the prime minister wasn’t aware of any misconduct allegations. That didn’t hold. We’ve had children’s minister Will Quince, appropriately exhibiting a childlike trust when explained he’d been given a “categorical assurance” by No 10 that Johnson knew nothing of “any serious specific allegation with regards to Chris Pincher”. By last night, even Johnson’s wife’s camp appeared to be briefing against him, with friends of Carrie claiming she’d actively questioned Pincher’s suitability as a whip as far back as 2017. Then this morning, we’ve had Raab, trying to fit wings to this baby: “I don’t think the prime minister is aware of any substantiated complaints against Chris Pincher, to the extent they would trigger a formal mechanism.” What is this word salad?! And how can it already be off the menu?!
I can’t even remember what number of Downing Street reboots we’re on now, but every single scandal still plays out like an awayday exercise in which a team of Dadaist amateurs have been given a disaster scenario and told to wargame it. As the biggest cost of living crisis in decades deepens, the public could surely be forgiven for concluding that government is not even happening anymore. The only time you see a minister, they are covering for some cock-up or lie by Johnson. They might tell themselves they run important departments, but they’re really just number five or six in the government’s all-consuming mission: clean-up. You don’t have to be mad to work there – but clearly it helps.
What Just Happened?! by Marina Hyde (Guardian Faber, £18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply