“I always try and be completely up front,” said Grant Shapps, who used to make a living selling get-rich-quick schemes under a false name. It was that kind of morning, but then we have that kind of government.
Conservative MPs are on the back foot because of the discovery that — readers with heart conditions should probably sit down for this — the prime minister might not have been completely straight about his own behaviour. The previous evening, the only people willing to defend Boris Johnson over the latest party pictures were Peter Bone and Sir Desmond Swayne, skipping their usual MENSA meetings to explain that sometimes parties aren’t parties. Although Swayne’s explanation that, in his experience, working life is one endless piss-up did help to solve the mystery of why he’d agreed to the interview.
By Tuesday morning, Shapps had been summoned. The Transport Secretary is perfect for this stuff, a seeker of the limelight who has almost as little shame as his boss. He was, he said, personally very upset about pictures of lockdown parties in Downing Street. “They’re disappointing,” he told the BBC. “It makes me angry to see them.” So angry that he had rushed to studios to tell the world that they proved nothing.
Let us, Shapps suggested, put ourselves in the shoes of the prime minister. “He goes to see a member of staff who is leaving, raises a glass to them, and I imagine comes in and out pretty quick.” It’s a defence that should be tried out more. “Your honour, my client was asked to go and meet a friend who was planning to leave the country that afternoon. He walked into the bank with them, raised a gun, and was really in and out pretty quickly.”
Not, of course that Shapps was defending anything. Perish the thought. “I’m not happy about the picture. Clearly it shouldn’t have happened.” Was he talking about the party or the picture? Hard to know.
But, he went on, perhaps the image of Johnson, glass in hand, next to a table covered with empty bottles, snacks and a curry, really told a different story. “The other thing I see in the photograph is the prime minister’s red box. It rather suggests that he left his office, came via that office, and thanked a member of staff who was leaving.”
The mind wandered. “Again, your honour, the photographs show that my client was wearing a balaclava throughout the incident, which rather suggests that his mind was on his forthcoming skiing holiday in a country without extradition agreements, and not on filling his bag with bundles of large denomination notes while shouting at the staff to stay away from the alarms.”
In the end, Shapps, said, it was not for him – or any of us – to judge. “You’re asking me was it right, was it wrong?” the Transport Secretary was deep into the kind of moral conundrum that has occupied philosophers for millennia. What is truth? Does the end justify the means? Can I top your glass up?
If you ignore all the lies and double standards and false claims and betrayals, Johnson is incredibly effective
“The police put a lot of time and energy in,” he said. “They’ve seen all the evidence. They’ve seen much more than you and I will have seen.” Maybe there are later pictures that show that the man in the photo was actually another member of staff in a Boris Johnson mask. Or perhaps in the unpixellated version of the image, the prime minister isn’t raising a glass of wine, but preparing to mix the final two chemicals that will create the breakthrough vaccine and save humanity. The really important thing is that we will sadly never know and should really stop asking.
“The PM’s already apologised,” Shapps said, referring to the roughly five minutes that Johnson has spent this year explaining that he is very sorry to have been caught. “He’s mortified by what happened.” Now we know. When the prime minister smirks while talking about all this, he’s smirking with mortification.
Anyway, the transport secretary went on, the real victims in all this were ministers. “One of the things which is so frustrating is there are so many important things that as a government we want to be talking about.”
Once again, we were at the oddest part of the defence of Johnson, that if you ignore all the lies and double standards and false claims and betrayals, he’s incredibly effective. To which we only have to look at the rest of the headlines, about senior people going on holiday as Afghanistan collapsed, about intervening to save dogs ahead of humans, and of course about his previous greatest hit, giving the Iranian government an excuse to continue the detention of a British citizen.
If only, Shapps seemed to be saying, we could stop talking about what a terrible human being he is, we could get back to looking at what a terrible prime minister he is.
In the meantime, Tory MPs are waiting to hear from Sue Gray. Before that they were waiting for the local election results, and before that they were waiting for the police, and before that they were waiting for Sue Gray again. After this they’ll want to wait for the by-elections, and the privileges committee, and then probably they’ll want to wait until after Christmas.
Theirs is an endless search for one more datapoint that will finally tell them whether Boris Johnson is a fit and proper person to lead the country. But they knew the answer in 2019, and put him in charge anyway.
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