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Artillery Row

Clear them all out

Downing Street officials should be held to higher standards

There’s a concept called “moral luck”, describing how sometimes what we think of as our own virtue is simply good fortune. We never are in the situation where we’re faced with the difficult choices, so we don’t find out whether we would really behave as we hope we might.

People around Boris Johnson are afflicted with terrible moral luck. His habit of saying whatever was convenient left officials and ministers to choose between repeating untruths and resigning. In the end, his ministers grew sick of one and opted for the other. His officials, on the other hand, seem to have reconciled themselves to just going along with whatever he said. 

Now we learn from the Sunday Times about an arrangement where a distant cousin of Johnson’s, a rich Canadian named Sam Blyth, guaranteed the cash-strapped prime minister an £800,000 line of credit to help fund his wallpaper habit. 

This isn’t about Johnson any more. If you didn’t think he was unfit even for low office by July last year, then nothing is going to convince you. His sole function these days is to help his supporters expose themselves in public. No doubt Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg are even now explaining to each other that it’s not Johnson’s fault that millionaires keep secretly throwing money at him. 

No, this is about another group of Johnson’s enablers

No, this is about another group of Johnson’s enablers. Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, the “propriety and ethics team” and Lord Geidt, the prime minister’s “independent ethics adviser” all signed the arrangement off, according to the Sunday Times. They also agreed that there was really no need for the public to know any of this.

We’re assured in the Sunday Times that had Case and Geidt but known that Cousin Sam was at the time applying to be chief executive of the British Council, they would have taken a different view. As ever, the people around Johnson were just one clue away from spotting the kind of chap he is.  

Johnson meanwhile argues that none of this is corrupt, because he was unaware of Blyth’s job application, and he got nothing back for the cash. Of course he didn’t. Johnson’s past is littered with wealthy people who never received the pro quos for their quids. Sometimes it feels like his sole redeeming feature. 

But this isn’t really the point. Should a prime minister be allowed to accept a very large gift from a rich foreign person and keep it a secret? This does not feel like one of the trickier propriety and ethics questions. And yet, somehow, it turns out that it was. 

Geidt quit over something else. Case is still there. So is Max Blain, who as spokesman for Johnson apologised in May for having repeatedly told journalists that no rules had been broken over the Downing Street lockdown parties, even though some of the parties involved press office staff who must have known that what he was saying was untrue. 

We can sympathise with them. Working for Johnson was the worst possible moral luck. It was inevitable that they would be put under pressure to do things they knew to be wrong. But bad moral luck doesn’t mean you face no consequences for your actions. And Downing Street officials are supposed to be the civil service’s finest. They should be held to the highest standards, even when the standards of the prime minister they serve are whatever he can get away with.  

They were tested. They failed the test. Clear them all out. 

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