At just after 8am in Westminster Hall, the 800-year-old chamber of the Palace of Westminster where William Wallace and King Charles I both stood trial, MPs and peers began to pray for Her Majesty’s Government. The annual National Prayer Breakfast had allocated three minutes for this, which in the circumstances was probably on the low side.
Nevertheless, the fervent prayer of righteous men and women availeth much, and at ten past the hour, the lord answered. Specifically, Lord McDonald of Salford, GCMG, KVCO, former permanent under-secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who popped up on the Today programme to deliver judgement.
A wrathful and avenging House of Lords.
“Things get to a point where you have to do the right thing,” McDonald explained. This point had for him, as for so many, come after the pension and the peerage were secure. When the body politic fights back against infection, the most vigorous white blood cells tend to be the retired ones. McDonald was there to reveal that — readers of a sensitive disposition should sit down for this bit — Boris Johnson hadn’t been completely straight with the public about something.
Since Chris Pincher’s resignation as deputy chief whip last week, the government has gone through a series of versions of events about what the prime minister had been told and when. At first, he wasn’t aware of any specific complaints, and then he was aware of “reports and speculation”, but nothing firmer than that. Now McDonald was saying Johnson had been personally briefed about a formal complaint in 2019.
“Number 10 have had five full days to get the story correct and that has still not happened,” McDonald said. “I think they need to come clean.” It was an astonishingly blunt intervention from a man who, for much of his career, would not have regarded the suggestion that his language was “ambiguous” as necessarily a criticism.
As it happened, Dominic Raab, the government’s punchbag-in-chief, had been foreign secretary at the time of the complaint and was touring the broadcast studios at the moment McDonald published his claim. It was the kind of happy coincidence that, if it doesn’t on its own provide evidence of an interventionist God, certainly proves the existence of a wrathful and avenging House of Lords.
It is a great mystery
McDonald’s claim that Johnson had been told about a complaint was “just factually not correct,” Raab told the BBC. An unspecified complaint had been made, it was upheld, but deemed not to warrant formal action. He had personally told Pincher to mend his ways. Perhaps with his eyes on a moment such as this, Raab had referred the complaint to the Cabinet Office, who’d supported his actions. “I informed the chef whip at the time.” Backs had been covered all round.
But there is a terrible danger in defending Johnson, as Raab really should know by now. “I have discussed this with the prime minister in the last 24 hours,” Raab said. “It is not my understanding that he was directly briefed.” Four hours later, Number 10 would confirm, of course, that Johnson had been briefed. He had forgotten about this until helpfully reminded by McDonald.
What is the mysterious force in Downing Street that leads the prime minister’s office to keep giving false answers? It is a great mystery. The daily briefing began half an hour late on Tuesday, possibly while the spokesman worked on his fake fainting.
How much longer can this go on? We had an insight into ministerial moods at the start of Cabinet. The prime minister likes to let cameras in for his opening monologue, to get a free broadcast hit of all the amazing things his government is doing. But the faces of his ministers told a different story. Nadine Dorries gazed into the middle distance, like someone trying to hold themselves together at the funeral of a loved one. Therese Coffey, who had to tour the studios on Sunday morning offering a version of events that has since proved false, stared directly at the prime minister with the expression of someone who’s just found out who wrote the limerick about her on the wall of the gents toilets. Chris Heaton-Harris, the chief whip, looked as though a child had just asked him what he did during the war.
As for Raab, his morning of doom had rolled on. On Good Morning Britain he’d tried to explain the distinction between being “found guilty” and having a complaint against you upheld. Later, in the House of Commons, he denied having said that McDonald was wrong. This was greeted with laughter, and a shout of “in the poo” that should be recorded here as it’s unlikely to make it into Hansard.
We’re really at the point where serving in Johnson’s Cabinet should be considered a bar to future office. But don’t feel too sorry for them. There is for all of them the possibility of redemption, and the promise of a life to come in a better place. In 20 or 30 years, all this will be forgotten, and Lord Raab of Esher will be popping up on the radio to lecture us, unchallenged, on the ethical lapses of the government of the day.
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