Left: A young Margaret Roberts with her father Alfred. Right: Johnson, père et fil
Artillery Row Portcullis

Nothing matters to careless people

The vigorous virtues are antique now

Nothing matters! Did you think Boris Johnson caught once again with his hand in the cookie jar, might be about to finally get his comeuppance? Wrong! It turns out polls show the Conservatives just as far ahead as ever, and voters largely unmoved. It is, apparently, “all in the price”.

Among some on the right, there’s a sort of manic glee, the mindset of people who can’t believe the policeman sent them on their way with a warning to watch their speed in future, and didn’t even mention the freshly severed head on the passenger seat. Voters love Boris! They knew he was a bounder when they voted for him, and they couldn’t be happier to be proved right. Nothing matters!

The relief is understandable, especially a week before local elections that come after more than a decade in government and a tricky 12 months. But before the Tories pop the champagne, a couple of questions.

First, and most importantly, is this who you are now? Do you judge acceptable behaviour simply by what you can get away with? There have always been people who felt that way in politics, of course – the prime minister seems to be one of them – but is that now the official position of the Conservative party?

If so, should we teach that in schools? Should we teach our children how to beat up weaklings, and steal from shops, and cheat in exams? Teach them to lie when they’re caught and, if the evidence is insurmountable, survey their class to find out if they should be punished? Tell kids there’s no such thing as right and wrong, only what polls well? Is the only truly wrong thing being caught?

And if this is what Conservatives believe, why not say so? Why not stand up in parliament, and tell us all, Jack Nicholson-like, that we’re damn right the Tories got private donors to pay the prime minister’s decorating bill, and they’d do it again, because we live in a world that has walls, and those walls need to be papered at £840 a roll.

Could it be that Conservatives cannot handle the truth? Does the polling offer a distraction from the question of how they have come to put in place as prime minister a man whom it is easy to imagine not simply breaking laws around fundraising, but not even understanding why he should be obliged to keep them?

It ought to trouble the Tories that they appear to be acting in precisely the way Labour would like to portray them

Modern Tories may no longer be interested in what Jesus would do, but surely they still care what Maggie would say. It is hard to imagine Margaret Thatcher, who insisted on covering the cost of a new ironing board when she moved into Downing Street, trying to get someone else to shell out tens of thousands to cover a bill for décor that she’d run up. And it is impossible to imagine the woman who delivered “the Sermon on The Mound” arguing that opinion polls trump morality.

It ought to trouble the Tories that they appear to be acting in precisely the way Labour would like to portray them: rich people doing favours for their rich friends, lining their pockets and living lives of reckless extravagance while pensioners are dying alone in care homes.

It ought to worry them that just because voters don’t mind something today, it doesn’t mean they won’t mind it tomorrow. No one knows the day or the hour when their opinion might shift, but once it does, it’s too late to start doing the right thing.

But in the end, even if there’s no punishment from the voters, even if Johnson once again walks away chortling, is that all that counts? Conservatives ought to be able to say, with more confidence than they are at the moment, that their leader is an honest man who acted within both the letter and the spirit of the law. That used to be the sort of thing that mattered. But it’s a different party now.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover