Awe-inspiring shamelessness

Michael Gove fails the test

“It’s terrible,” Michael Gove oozed to Laura Kuenssberg, as on the screen next to him drunken Tories were shown dancing and falling over during a strictly necessary Christmas lockdown work event. He was shocked and appalled at the sight of people breaking the restrictions their own government had imposed on the rest of us. “On a personal level I would like to apologise to people for this behaviour. It is unacceptable and indefensible.”

Although, to be clear, Gove would definitely defend it if asked. Indeed, one message from Number 10 to his smart watch and he could have started explaining, mid-interview, how these people had been working incredibly hard to fight the virus and had all personally volunteered to test vectors of transmission during pissed-up partying. Or perhaps he’d have claimed to have been struck blind, rendering him simply unable to see the film. Oh how he wished he could comment on it Laura, my goodness he wished he could, but he was simply unable to comment fairly on something he couldn’t see.

Do you doubt me? Kuenssberg went on to point out that two of those at the party featured in the video had received gongs in Boris Johnson’s Honours List of Horror. Should they be stripped of them? “No, I don’t think that,” Gove went on, adopting a new position with the ease of an oiled contortionist at a Vegas strip club. “Let me explain.” Do, Michael, do. “I have to – and I do – respect due process. The decision about who was on that list was Boris Johnson’s.”

I guess honours lists are like the laws of physics

Well, fair enough, Michael, I guess honours lists are like the laws of physics or the Ten Commandments: we’re stuck with them, and there is simply nothing anyone can do. Although it does make you wonder why it took so long for Johnson’s list to go through, if Downing Street did nothing more than pass the list on. Why, indeed, is Downing Street involved at all, if the prime minister has no power to refuse a name on the grounds that it is an offence to all decent people? But Gove has to — and does — respect due process, and that’s just how it is. 

Although, hang on a second, does Gove have to respect due process? And does he, in fact? There’s been a bit of due process in the House of Commons this week, as keen-eyed readers will know, relating to Johnson himself. Tomorrow, the chamber will vote on the Privileges Committee’s report into the former prime minister, which concludes that he repeatedly and egregiously misled Parliament over lockdown parties, that he misled the committee itself in his evidence, that he breached confidence by leaking its findings, and that he was in contempt of Parliament with his attacks on the committee. 

Now we all know how seriously Gove takes Britain’s parliamentary democracy. Few things are more precious to him. It is the very foundation upon which our country has grown great. So of course he was going to support the committee’s report. He has to — and does — respect due process, after all.

Or not. “The Privileges Committee report is pretty clear,” Gove began, “but.” Aha. “It is Boris’s sincere belief that he was assured the rules were followed,” he explained, as though he wasn’t painfully aware that Johnson is no more capable of holding sincere beliefs than he is of flying to the moon or using a condom. 

The penalty proposed by the committee was simply too harsh, Gove explained. Johnson had already suffered: he had left Parliament. We keep being told this is punishment enough, although it was a lot more like fleeing the scene of the crime than manfully accepting the judgement of his peers. 

Not, to be clear, that Gove was rejecting the report of the committee appointed by parliament to investigate Johnson. He could never do that, not with how he has to — and does — respect due process. It was a good report, he said. “There are parts of I think are excellent work.” Sadly, he thought a 90-day ban from sitting in Parliament — a ban that Johnson has in any case escaped with his midnight flit — was simply too harsh.

So what would Gove, the principled defender of democracy, the man who has to — and does — respect due process, do? “I will not vote. I will abstain.”

There’s something awe-inspiring about witnessing such shamelessness. For years, when Labour MPs were led by Jeremy Corbyn, Tory MPs very much including Gove rebuked them for standing anywhere near a man so unfit to lead the country. And Labour MPs, let’s not forget, tried very hard to remove Corbyn. Some ended their political careers in the effort. All that Gove and other Tories have to do is vote through a report produced by a committee with a Conservative majority, in support of the uncontroversial idea that prime ministers shouldn’t lie to parliament. 

Their vote, some are doubtless telling themselves, will make no difference to the outcome. Or to Johnson, who is gone anyway. But if you can’t stand up for what is right when the price is low, what confidence can we have that you would do it when it might actually cost something? That is the question that faces every Conservative MP. It is the test that Gove publicly failed on Sunday morning.

Is it moral cowardice, or moral indifference? Either is indefensible. Although, of course, Gove would defend it.

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