No one doubted it, not even Boris Johnson. The attempt to rescue his friend Owen Paterson from a mild penalty for a breach of the parliamentary code was an abject failure.
The Tories’ short-lived attempt to tear up the independent system for combating parliamentary sleaze has been scrapped. After the government’s U-turn, MPs were due a fresh vote over whether to suspend Paterson from the Commons, but he has now resigned from the “cruel world of politics”. The real worry is that the prime minister clearly had no clue what was wrong. He seemed not to get the point of ethics. Nor presumably to see that his volte face has now led to Paterson’s previously unnecessary resignation. Johnson has now had two years of constant brushes with Westminster’s ethics police – on holiday gifts, expenses, flat decoration and Priti Patel’s bullying – but in each case he just shrugs. He says, in effetti, my will is the law.
At such moments, we must ask who guards the guardians. Downing Street has clearly treated parliament as a populist assembly, a lapdog to executive power. That 250 Tory MPs on Wednesday night, after damning dozens of ordinary MPs such as Keith Vaz and Ian Paisley for unethical behaviour, poteva obey Johnson’s orders to bail out his friend is, if anything, more awful than Johnson’s own decision.
I suppose it is to the credit of Tory MPs that they slept on their decision and now recognise their guilt, swiftly protesting. But what did they think they were doing? Do they regard it as acceptable for a private company to think it worth paying one of them a sweetener of £100,000? For Johnson seriously to have proposed (and for his MPs to have accepted) a hand-picked Tory “ethics” committee to replace one with whose decision he disagrees would be laughable were it not outrageous.
All power corrupts, the more absolutely it grows. Johnson last year forced the resignation of the ministerial standards officer, Sir Alex Allen, by rejecting his censure of the home secretary, Priti Patel, for bullying her staff. He found himself at odds with the Electoral Commission over his use of political donations to refurbish his flat, which even his aide Dominic Cummings thought “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal". Two years ago, Johnson had to be dragged to the supreme court and stand corrected over his refusal to recall parliament. Now he has tried effectively to sack the House of Commons parliamentary commissioner for standards, who was reportedly soon to open another inquiry into his expenses. The prime minister plainly has a dysfunctional relationship with the law.
The cabinet must surely have opposed the original Paterson decision, yet failed to influence it. The same must have applied to the Tory party chairman, Oliver Dowden, and the leader of the house, Jacob Rees-Mogg, along with senior colleagues as Michael Gove or Rishi Sunak. They must have known it was wrong, yet they appear to have been Johnson’s lackeys.
So who does the prime minister listen to? Johnson’s most reckless decision as Tory leader was the sacking of the half dozen of his predecessor Theresa May’s senior colleagues who shared one thing in common: they were more able than him. He therefore saw them as a threat. The result has been two years of ineffective cabinet government. That left only the cabal, the oligarchy that forms round every prime minister, the courtiers that inhabit No 10.
Even powerful leaders have whisperers in their ear, sometimes elder statesmen wiser than they are, sometimes courtiers whose cast of mind has rendered them briefly indispensable. Churchill had field marshal Alanbrook, Thatcher had Willie Whitelaw, Tony Blair had Alastair Campbell. All needed someone who in a moment of crisis could tell them, “You are mad”. Of Whitelaw, Thatcher famously said: “Every prime minister needs a Willie.”
On entering office, Johnson was obsessed with loyalty alone, a serious defect in a leader. He bizarrely brought from his Brexit office the eccentric fanatic, Dominic Cummings, who lasted less than two years and presided over universal factionalism. With him had come an aide from Johnson’s London mayoral office, the property developers’ favourite lobbyist Edward Lister. After Lister suddenly resigned in January, he quietly joined the crony peers’ list and became Johnson’s “envoy to the Gulf”.
No one seemed secure. The press officers Lee Cain and Allegra Stratton lasted months under Johnson, not years. Johnson’s private secretary Simon Case, formerly a palace official, lasted three months before moving to be cabinet secretary while a relatively junior official, Dan Rosenfield, supposedly succeeded Cummings in charge of “strategy”. No one in Downing Street, I am told, would say boo to a goose, let alone a prime minister.
The talk now is that a chief whisperer in Johnson’s ear is Lord Geidt, formerly the Queen’s private secretary. He is said to have won the prime minister’s confidence and was in April duly appointed as Alex Allen’s successor as “independent adviser on ministerial interests”. A month later, he exonerated Johnson of any breach of the ministerial code or conflict of interest in the vexed issue of flat decoration. To Johnson this is a cardinal test of loyalty. It is hard to believe he would not have consulted so close an adviser as Geidt over the initial Paterson decision.
Opinion polls declare that the public is unmoved by the ethical contortions of the ruling classes. So what? They should matter, at least to a Britain that loves hypocritically to lecture other nations on the evils of corruption. Johnson may have recoiled from his foolishness, but he was clearly guilty of trying to strip parliament of its role in overseeing the professional behaviour of politicians and ministers. He wanted to be the sole adjudicator of that behaviour.
In many countries, the national assembly would have its rights in these matters constitutionally embedded. Not in Britain. In many, there would be a role for the supreme court. Ancora, not in Britain. Those who share the Downing Street sofa with Boris Johnson do so unknown. Those who advise the prime minister may do so in secret, unaccountable to parliament. The result is a mess.