Hugely encouraging to find Boris Johnson treating Monday’s emergency debate on sleaze like the birth of a lovechild. Which is to say, he was unfortunately washing his hair. Metaphorically, of course. I get a strong “Mate, after eight weeks, hair cleans itself energy” from the prime minister.
The House of Commons isn’t going to clean itself, unfortunately, which makes it all the more regrettable that Johnson always feels the need to get away from his mistakes. By next year, he’ll have billed the taxpayer for a full-scale Fortress of Solitude, with the only locked-on certainty being that Kwasi Kwarteng will assure us the £38bn crystal cave is a non-story.
Yesterday, though, we had Anne-Marie Trevelyan defending outside earnings. The trade secretary didn’t think the ability to maintain lucrative consultancies should be removed, she said in one interview, because it brought a “richness” to the Commons. Jesus, Anne-Marie: YOU HAD ONE JOB. Unlike half the Tory backbenches, obviously, who have three jobs. Good to know that ongoing performance art piece Chris Grayling takes a full £100,000 a year from Hutchison Ports Europe, where I imagine his advice runs to “Quick one: did you remember to acquire some ports? Seems obvious but I once ballsed up on this front with ferries.”
The latest emanation from the WTF files is the revelation that Torridge and West Devon MP Geoffrey Cox has spoken once in a single parliamentary debate since February 2020, and spent part of this year working and voting remotely out of the British Virgin Islands, where he pocketed £150,000 of his £900,000 extra-parliamentary earnings for advising the tax haven’s government on Foreign Office corruption charges. I mean … Just get an OnlyFans, Geoffrey. It’s so much more dignified. Incidentally, it’s nice to remember how many people wanged on about what a nice voice this #massivelegend had, back when he was a scenery-chewing attorney general for Theresa May. You can bet they feel pretty ahead of the curve now. They could get Cox to record their voicemail greeting for them. He’s bound to be on Cameo. Indeed, perhaps that’s the logical next step in democracy’s voiding of its bowels: Boris Johnson charging a grand a pop to gibber “Build Back Birthday!” for paying members of the electorate.
Amazingly, Cox is just one element in what’s becoming a category 5 shitstorm for Johnson. There are honestly too many fronts to fit in here, from Johnson’s own byzantine arrangements for paying for £840-a-roll gold wallpaper, to the grotesque racket of Tory treasurers donating £3m and reliably ending up in the Lords. (Johnson has appointed a full 96 peers in less than two years, meaning the Lords itself now runs to nearly 800 members and is bigger than the entire EU parliament.)
All this is before we even get to Delyn MP Rob Roberts, who has somehow just been allowed to rejoin the Conservative party and sit as an independent in the Commons despite an investigation having found he sexually harassed a junior member of staff. Mind you, I’ve very much enjoyed the gentlemen across Fleet Street who’ve been pontificating along the lines of: “Can you imagine a sexual harasser in any other workplace simply being allowed to carry on working there?”
Yes, guys. I can.
ANYHOW. In the absence of Johnson, you might have ordinarily expected Monday’s debate to be opened by leader of the house Jacob Rees-Mogg. As one of the architects of the catastrophic Paterson amendment, however, Rees-Mogg was evidently deemed too much of an oratorical liability. He and his fellow blunderer, chief whip Mark Spencer, could instead be found sitting boot-faced and silent on the frontbench like Crabbe and Goyle – a pair of not-very-hench men who knew their blond ringleader wasn’t going to show up.
At the dispatch box, honours were instead done by Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay, a political entity I find it very difficult to have an opinion about one way or the other. Ever since he was appointed from the ether as Brexit secretary in 2018, Barclay has somehow always seemed a placeholder minister, who materialises only as a temporary proxy – the human equivalent of the apologetic parenthesis [sorry this bit to follow later].
But look: Steve didn’t exactly have great material to work with – and it should obviously never even have been his script. The bottler who should have done it had instead spent the morning at a hospital in Northumberland, floundering to the cameras that he couldn’t get back in time. Boris Johnson is the most extraordinarily bad liar, which is really embarrassing for him considering how long he’s spent practising. I heard if you spent 10,000 hours doing something you were supposed to be an expert in it. In which case, Johnson should be able to compete intergalactically in this particularly discipline. He should be good enough to be Earth’s tribune in the Bullshit Games.
Instead, we found the PM skulking in a radiology department, trying to change the subject to Covid. That in itself tells you quite how bad things are. Changing the subject to talk about something he’s handled as badly as Covid has the ring of “Can we talk instead about how I can’t live on £160,000 and two free houses?”, or “Can we talk instead about how my wife’s five years older than my daughter?” I suppose you have to concede the quality of the white goods he’s hiding in has improved. He’s graduated from a fridge to a CT scan machine.
Arguably the darkest news this week, though, is the discovery that the standards commissioner, Kathryn Stone, now requires increased security after threats against her. What a moment for pause. It was barely two weeks ago that some in the Commons were calling for “David’s Law”, in memory of the brutally murdered MP David Amess, explaining that sky-rocketing abuse of members was fuelled by the internet. And yet, what is abuse of the previously pretty anonymous standards commissioner fuelled by, if not some hugely unnecessary and disgracefully targeted attacks on her led by some MPs themselves? If only they’d spend a little less time on the second jobs, and a little more considering the duties and honour of the first.
In the meantime, Johnson has reminded his MPs he’s a weak man masquerading as a strong one, which is why serving ministers are now giving quotes to the Times like: “We put up with him as long as he’s popular. As soon as he’s not, we should get rid.” Oof. That time may not have come. But I’m reminded of a great Hemingway line from The Sun Also Rises. “How did you go bankrupt?” “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.”