Steve the Soother

It’s a sad, sad situation

The bold standard

Readers may be familiar with Robert Conquest’s Third Law of Politics, that any organisation’s actions can be best understood by assuming that it is controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies. Certainly this would explain a lot about Boris Johnson’s government.

Its aim last Wednesday morning, after all, was to protect Owen Paterson, avoid a by-election, torpedo Parliament’s Standards Commissioner and keep Tory MPs on side. By the time the House of Commons sat on Monday afternoon, Paterson had become the face of cash-for-access, a new MP was needed for North Shropshire, the Commissioner was secure and Johnson’s party was furious with him. Worse, from his point of view, it is now open season on every doubtful parliamentary practice. Honestly, how much worse could things be for the government if the prime minister had spent the last week acting on direct instructions from the Labour Party? 

Barclay is an amiable fellow with smooth features who would make an excellent soft toy

With Johnson’s decisions under scrutiny, it was no surprise to learn that he was at the other end of the country, visiting a hospital, and, quite possibly, hiding in its fridges. Brave Sir Boris had, once again, run away.

In his place was Steve Barclay, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Next to him on the front bench were the Chief Whip, Mark Spencer, and the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg. Neither looked happy. Rees-Mogg seemed at times to be fuming. Perhaps he wanted to defend his actions, or explain, as he did on Thursday, that his defence of Paterson had somehow been misinterpreted as a defence of Paterson. But the government wants this to go away, and so it had chosen a different spokesman.

Barclay is an amiable fellow with smooth features who would make an excellent soft toy, or children’s cartoon character. It was his job to pour oil on the very troubled waters. Steve the Soother, can he calm things? Steve the Soother, no, on this occasion, it turns out he really can’t.

He opened by saying how grateful he was for the emergency debate. “I bet you are!” shouted a heckler, and Barclay smiled ruefully. He wanted to begin, he said, by putting on record his “regret”, and that of his colleagues, over “the mistake made last week”. It was a masterstroke of Unapology: he was saying sorry for something, but it wasn’t clear what. Of course, if one minister is sorry then the entire government is, even if no one takes the blame. Constitutional scholars call this the Convention of Collective Irresponsibility.

Anyway, all that was behind us, whatever it was. Paterson had “suffered a serious personal tragedy,” Barclay reminded us. “He has now resigned.” And let that be an end to the matter. 

It was never going to be that easy. The chamber was, roughly, split into three groups. First, opposition MPs were fuming and were looking for ways to call Johnson a crook without being told off by the Speaker. It turns out that calling him a “tin pot dictator” is off limits, but calling the government “corrupt” is absolutely fine.

For Labour, Keir Starmer rose to the occasion. Johnson had given “the green light to corruption”. Paterson “took money to lobby ministers”. The prime minister should have told him to take his punishment. Instead he’d used Paterson “as a pawn” to attack the standards system. 

Finally, there are what we might call the Paterson Truthers

“It is said that the prime minister does not believe that the rules apply to him, but it is worse than that,” Starmer said. “He absolutely knows that the rules do apply to him; his strategy is to devalue the rules so that they do not matter to anyone any more. The prime minister hopes to drag us all into the gutter with him.”

Starmer closed with a critique that we’re going to hear a lot more: “Instead of leading from the front, he has cowered away. He is not a serious leader, and the joke is not funny any more.”

The next group were Tory MPs who were also fuming, having been pushed to bend the rules for Paterson. Aaron Bell, one of those who refused to do so, spoke on their behalf. Colleagues had, he said, “endured a miserable time” and were “beating themselves up” for having listened to the government whips. This is obviously not an administration in which anyone resigns for anything, ever, but Spencer is going to find it hard going the next time he’s trying to twist arms ahead of a vote.

Finally, there are what we might call the Paterson Truthers. Most of the Tory MPs who last week were so keen to show their support for Paterson were absent. Perhaps they were helping the prime minister with his hospital tour. But Bill Cash fought on. Throughout the session, he banged one drum, impervious to colleagues rolling their eyes or telling him it was irrelevant. Owen Paterson’s 17 Witnesses have become this parliament’s grassy knoll. 

After spending the last four decades complaining about Europe, Cash had been at risk of finding himself at a loose end. Fortunately the Justice for Paterson Committee has the potential to keep him going for another four.

Meanwhile, the Sketch likes to think, somewhere at a secret location the prime minister’s burner phone was beeping as a fresh instruction arrived from his Labour controller.

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