In the end, the time period between being told that everything had to wait for Sue Gray’s report, and being told that everyone should move on from it, was less than 24 hours. Boris Johnson took “full responsibility” for the Downing Street parties while trying to magic it all away: the frat house arrogance, the vomit, the “we got away with it” emails. It now seems po-faced to ask why the party in the prime minister’s flat was not investigated, why press officers who had clearly lied to the press have not been fired, or what “full responsibility” means if not resigning.
Instead, the country breathed a sigh of relief as the chancellor produced the required rabbit out of a hat — a big package to ease the cost of living. Rishi Sunak should have used his Spring Statement to do this two months ago. Back then, he woefully underestimated the struggles of ordinary families. He was too focused on trying to burnish his small state credentials to contrast with a prime minister who had given Britain the highest tax rate in years.
Sunak’s measures are a sensible response to inflation and soaring energy bills. No matter that the windfall tax on energy companies was a Labour idea: something needed to be done to shore up families. It’s not clear, though, why the rich needed to benefit. Moreover, even with the chancellor’s tax rebate on energy investment, the windfall tax will further dent the UK as an attractive place to do business over the long term.
The widespread mistrust of this government means companies find it impossible to anticipate a prime minister who repeatedly changes his mind to ensure his own survival. Two weeks ago he reversed his obesity policies because three Tory MPs threatened to write letters of no confidence unless he did — to the fury of Tesco and Sainsbury’s, which had planned for a ban on discount offers. The man who held the country hostage in lockdowns is now being held hostage by any backbencher who walks into his office with a gripe.
Ministers who claim they want to move on and address the real issues should be careful what they wish for. Covid is no longer an excuse for delayed passports and grants of probate, logjam in the courts, and other functions which should be a given in any democracy. There are 6mn people waiting for routine hospital treatment, threatened rail strikes, and crises in housing and social care. The inflation rate is forecast to reach 10 per cent by the end of this year — in an economy which has missed out on the trade rebound experienced by almost every other industrialised country. And this government has no answers for any of it.
The shenanigans in Downing Street are symptomatic of a deep malaise at the centre, a casual carelessness which pervades Whitehall. Jacob Rees-Mogg can wander around leaving snippy notes on empty desks, but there is an emptiness at the top. The British system is heavily dependent on the centre for direction: yes, officials can run rings around Number 10, but without it, everything defaults to drift.
Tory MPs know all this. Some now seem resigned to losing the next election. The Red Wall intake of 2019 still tend to support Johnson, to whom they owe their seats. Others are split between backing Jeremy Hunt or Liz Truss for the leadership, each group dreading a win by the other. When Tory MP Tobias Ellwood stood alone in the Commons chamber to declare his opposition to the prime minister, he told colleagues: “if we cannot work out what we are going to do, the broad church of the Conservative party will lose the next general election”. That’s precisely the problem: the broad church has been skewed to the right, and it is not clear whether anyone else would be able to maintain Johnson’s new electoral coalition.
It’s not over yet. Before Easter, many Tory MPs withheld the letters requesting a leadership ballot because they thought Johnson would win a vote of confidence. Now, they are shocked by constituents’ fury over the lies and the lack of progress on issues such as the cost of living. They also know that the standards and privileges committee could suspend or expel Johnson from the Commons, despite its inbuilt Tory majority. The Gray report proves the prime minister misled parliament when he denied any parties took place. He made draconian laws which he then broke. Now the ministerial code has been changed to omit the words integrity, honesty and accountability, which hardly speaks of contrition.
The tragedy for the country is that this could have been a time of unprecedented national unity. In the lockdown of Spring 2020, villages banded together to support those living alone. People stayed away from hospitals to save lives, care workers moved into residential homes to look after the elderly, and so many people volunteered to help the NHS that the website crashed.
Instead of capitalising on this fellow feeling, Johnson’s strategy is to divide with “wedge issues”. A country which is willing to make Brexit work is being run by an administration still obsessed with dividing people into “Leave” and “Remain” in its appointments, including to the cabinet. During his press conference this week, the prime minister complained that governments for decades had “shirked” sorting out legacy issues in Northern Ireland — denigrating in one swoop John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and the Good Friday Agreement, when he himself has imperilled the peace process.
The conjuring trick has worked for a while. The country is bored of partygate, but will not be easily won over with reduced energy bills. Contrary to appearances, most Tory MPs do still have consciences: now is the time to examine them.