Beyond Blunderdome

Minister, this is switch, can you lie?

What is the opposite of a masterclass? The thing you watch to find out how you can completely fail in the field to which you aspire? Hootorial? Foolschool? Expensively shot ads running endlessly on the internet, featuring a world-famous disaster zone musing on the nature of being at the centre of a series of A1 disasters, before they close by looking directly at the camera: “I’m Nick Clegg. Welcome to my Blundercourse.”

On Monday evening Paul Scully, the business minister, gave a Newsnight interview that will be studied for years to come. He was defending, sort-of, Boris Johnson. This gig was not so much a hospital pass as a ticket to the mortuary. The government’s line is that the prime minister has apologised, but that it would be quite wrong to tell us what for. And let that be an end to the matter.

This didn’t sound very good when Johnson tried it out in Parliament, but it sounded even worse under the TV lights. “There’s palpable anger across the country, and we’ve got to address that,” Scully explained to a sceptical Emma Barnett. “We’ve got to tackle the underlying issues.” Though not, of course, the Underlying Issue-In-Chief. It was “frustrating”, Scully said, that the prime minister had to wait for the police to tell him if he’d been to any parties.

He delivered his request for one more chance while clutching a bunch of flowers bought from a petrol station

“We just know that parties were happening at Downing Street,” a baffled Barnett said. “We know it now.”

“You don’t know that the prime minister’s had a whole load of parties,” Scully said, somewhat desperately. “We don’t know which ones he went to.” Could someone ask him? It might save a lot of time.

We are told that Tory MPs are rallying to the prime minister’s side after he gave “the speech of his life” to them on Monday night. It’s a funny quality of Johnson’s that he is apparently able to give brilliant performances in places where no cameras or journalists are present. His statement to the Commons was awful: blustering, evasive and bad-tempered. But apparently a couple of hours later he was contrite, promising to “change” and “listen”. As no reporters were there, we can only guess, but in the mind’s eye he delivered his request for one more chance while clutching a bunch of flowers bought from a petrol station.

For the Tuesday morning broadcast round, it was the turn of Justice Secretary and sympathy-titled “First Secretary of State” Dominic Raab to debase himself. He began the day with a bounce in his voice, telling Times Radio that Johnson “has addressed all of these questions in a fulsome way.” This is a rare example of an anti-malapropism: Raab meant “complete”, but the word’s actual meaning, “insincere”, is more accurate.

Raab was full of vim. The government was getting on with the job, something economy, something else vaccines. As he went on, through Sky News and then BBC Breakfast and LBC, he started to look a little shopworn. Then he was hit by the juggernaut that is Nick Robinson on Radio 4.

What had the prime minister apologised for, Robinson asked, a number of times. “He believes he acted in good faith,” Raab replied. So was he still saying there were no parties? “He’s expressed that contrition for his overall responsibility for what takes place in Number 10.”

So, Robinson asked, when Sue Gray said there’s been a failure of leadership, whose did she mean?

“In a way, that’s a question for Sue Gray,” Raab said, a touch sadly. “But she leaves it rather open.”

He went on. “What I think Sue Gray is referring to in the context…”

And suddenly light dawned. Sue Gray’s words must be interpreted for us. Her report must be read alongside other Scriptures, such as the Ministerial Code, and Hansard, so that we can have proper understanding and know how to apply it in our own lives.

Was Sue Gray in the beginning? Did she hover over the waters? We know that through her all information is released, and without her nothing was released that has been released. No one has ever seen Sue Gray, but the Cabinet Office makes her known. She certainly moves in some pretty mysterious ways, her wonders to perform.

He was Dominic Raab. Welcome to his Mastershambles

If only Sue Gray had a physical, earthly presence, so that we could address our questions directly to her. We are left instead to ask ourselves, as we go about our daily lives: “What Would Sue Gray Do?”

She wouldn’t be so daft as to defend Boris Johnson, that’s clear. Raab was asked if he agreed with the prime minister’s claim that Keir Starmer had been responsible for the decision not to prosecute Jimmy Savile. “I’m certainly not repeating it,” Raab said, proving if nothing else that he was present the day they taught law at law school. “I don’t have the facts to justify that. That’s for him. I can’t substantiate that.”

How much longer will they put up with this? At the end of 90 minutes defending Johnson, Raab was wiping sweat from his brow, licking his lips, blinking and swaying as he tried to explain to Good Morning Britain the theological mystery through which the prime minister at once took responsibility and yet wasn’t responsible. You might have pitied him, had he not chosen to be there. He was Dominic Raab. Welcome to his Mastershambles.

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