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Comical in its excess

Boris Johnson’s last stand

Artillery Row

“The House will recognise that this is an exceptional situation,” the Paymaster General, Jeremy Quin, told MPs. “It is unprecedented.” This was strong stuff. 

“We have been plunged into a constitutional crisis!” Peter Bone declared. What could it be? Had Jacob Rees-Mogg inadvertently, in the opinion of the Supreme Court, misled another beloved monarch? Had the prime minister admitted breaking the law again? Had dozens more ministers announced they could no longer bear to repeat lies and resigned in disgust?

No, no, those were all issues with which Bone and Quin had managed, somehow, to live. But whatever it was, it was a big problem. We knew this because another Tory MP, Alexander Stafford, told the Commons that he’d contacted staff in his local job centre to discuss the crisis, and that they had been “horrified”. Maybe it was a debate about the impossibility these days of catching a train on the West Coast. 

“Many will say it is outrageous!” Suzanne Webb announced. What could this horror be that was so exercising men and women up and down the country? Conservative MPs weren’t being asked to clear Owen Paterson over lobbying again, were they? 

Has anyone, even Johnson, taken as much damage as Rees-Mogg?

No, the crisis that had caused Tories to crowd onto the government benches in numbers far greater than they manage for discussions of schools or hospitals was the decision by Keir Starmer to appoint a new chief of staff. 

You can see why Tory MPs find Sue Gray’s move from the civil service to the Leader of the Opposition’s office troubling. Gray has a nose for power, and her departure is a sign that important people think the Conservatives won’t have it for much longer. She has also, for some years, been in charge of keeping awkward things out of the news, so they can reasonably worry that she might now release some of those things. 

Tthe hour-long fit of the vapours that overcame Conservatives on Monday afternoon was comical in its excess. Civil servants have moved into political roles before. Some of them have become MPs. Others have leaked embarrassing stories. Without wishing to suggest that Stafford was dissembling, I struggle to believe that job centre staff in the Rother Valley give much of a toss who runs Starmer’s office.

Rees-Mogg thundered that Gray’s appointment meant her report into Johnson’s lockdown parties could no longer be trusted, because it had been compiled by “a friend of the socialists”. It’s politically convenient for allies of the disgraced prime minister to pretend that the report didn’t cover up as much as it revealed. Has anyone, even Johnson, taken as much damage to their reputation from Johnson’s days in office as Rees-Mogg? There was a time when even opponents saw him as a figure to be taken seriously, a man of integrity. Now he’s a political end-of-the-pier show, trotting out familiar lines for dwindling crowds. 

There was huge interest, not least from Quin, in Starmer’s refusal to say when exactly he began talking to Gray. I half-suspect a deliberate attempt by the Labour leader to keep the story going. There are suggestions in some quarters that the opposition are unnerved by the amount of interest in this story. If I were running Labour, I would spend considerable sums to get Partygate back onto front pages. 

Angela Rayner certainly gave a very good impression of someone who was finding the whole thing hilarious. She laughed that the government was indulging Johnson’s “conspiracy theories”. Would we be having a debate on the moon landings next, she asked. 

It was nice to see Conservative MPs discovering long-held passionate beliefs in civil service propriety, especially after last year, when many of them seemed untroubled by news of officials vomiting their way through Number 10 after late-night drinking sessions. William Wragg, a Conservative who really has been worried about this stuff for a while, asked Quin if the government would now look at enforcing rules about the jobs people take after leaving government positions. The minister had a sudden attack of discretion. Let’s not get carried away, William.  

On and on they went. Lee Anderson, who once asked a friend to impersonate a random member of the public for a TV interview, said the appointment “cast a dark stain upon democracy”. Several MPs complained that Gray knew all sorts of awful secrets about the government. Perhaps she does, but this seems an odd thing to say out loud. Marcus Fysh started reading out a long conspiracy theory about how Gray had been responsible for there being a land border in Ireland, and was eventually silenced by the Speaker, so we’ll never know her role in the Irish Civil War. “Who, what, when, where, why?” shouted Jonathan Gullis, possibly under the impression that he was teaching basic news-writing to a journalism course.

What were they hoping to achieve from all this? To remind voters of their most damaging scandal? To hint that there might be other horrors yet to come out? To hammer home the point that everyone expects them to lose the next election badly? It was baffling, as though, with Gray’s departure, the government had lost its way. Maybe she really has been the guiding hand behind everything for the last decade.

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