The Guardian view on the Gray report: a diagnosis of sick government

Of the many things Boris Johnson has told the House of Commons, perhaps the least credible of all is Wednesday’s claim to be “humbled” by Sue Gray’s report into Downing Street parties during the pandemic.

There was no humility in the subsequent debate or press conference on the topic. Mr Johnson, a practised liar, cannot even fake contrition. The Gray report describes systemic breaches of Covid regulations in Downing Street, committed knowingly and with contempt for the idea of professional government.

There was excessive drinking, beginning early in the day and ending late at night. There was vomiting and fighting. Staff were warned to beware of cameras, to leave by back doors, for fear of their behaviour being revealed. A senior official spoke of “getting away with” one event. Cleaning and security staff were treated with disrespect. The karaoke machine was supplied by the prime minister’s adviser on ethics.

All of it would be unacceptable in any serious workplace. In the seat of government, it is an affront to democracy. But that is not the limit of the offence. The rules being flouted were devised to save lives in a national emergency. Their observance by the general public kept bereaved families from gathering at funerals and prevented relatives visiting the bedsides of dying loved ones. It is hard to conceive of a more egregious insult to those who suffered through the pandemic than the discovery that their sacrifice was being mocked in the prime minister’s official residence. Only his inability to show genuine remorse matches it for cruelty.

On Wednesday, Mr Johnson told MPs he took responsibility, but failed to explain how. The assertion was no more convincing than his affectation of humility. Most of his Commons performance was taken up with bogus excuses, cavilling, deflection and dissembling. He could not conceal the self-pity, considering himself to be a victim of excessive, prurient interrogation. He looked more bored than sorry.

Even when the object of the exercise was to address public anger, the prime minister could not conceal his impatience at being made to answer for anything to anyone. That combination of arrogance and entitlement is the origin of the whole scandal. Mr Johnson’s defence relies on the assertion that he was unaware of rule-breaking, which is improbable given his proximity to events, and absurd given that his indisciplined and dissolute character gave his staff the permission to do as they pleased.

Mr Johnson is wrong if he thinks people are ready to “move on” from questions about parties. He cannot grasp the gravity of his offence, because doing so requires empathy with those who feel their hard work and personal sacrifices during the pandemic have been belittled.

There is a line of transmission from the leader’s narcissistic indifference to the interests of anyone but himself to the pattern of chaotic government, unequal to the serious challenges it faces.

Conservative MPs who continue to support their leader, supposing that the present turbulence is a squall that can be navigated to reach a more competent phase of government, are delusional. They are also degrading themselves and their party through complicity with a prime minister whose toxic unfitness for office is a corrosive substance, eating away at the foundations of British democracy.

The Gray report cannot bring an end to the matter because it describes symptoms of an ongoing syndrome – a moral debilitation in politics that spreads outwards from the prime minister. Tory MPs have it in their power to stop the contagion by removing their leader, but they do not. It is a failure of courage and conscience for which they must one day pay a heavy electoral price.

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