There can be no higher calling for a junior minister than to make an idiot of himself in defence of a more senior colleague. The sketch isn’t entirely clear on how young gentlemen are instructed at our finest public schools, but there is clearly a moment when our future leaders are told that, when the game is up and the chips are down, a man has to stand up and walk out of the room, and let someone else to take the flak.
The practice predated Boris Johnson, but his government has made it regular business. There can scarcely be a member of the government who hasn’t in the past 18 months had to explain that something wasn’t as racist as it sounded, or that Cobra briefings are optional, or that it’s quite usual for prime ministers to be unable to explain who paid for their holidays or their wallpaper. Perhaps this humiliation binds them to the leader in some way.
On Tuesday we saw that the Chancellor too is now taking advantage of the manoeuvre, as the Minister for Small Business, Paul Scully, was put up to answer an urgent question on the text messages that Rishi Sunak exchanged with David Cameron about the possibility of Her Majesty’s Treasury giving the former prime minister’s employer a bit of a hand.
Before we got to all that, there was an interlude in memory of Cheryl Gillan, the Conservative MP for Chesham and Amersham who died over the Easter break. In an interesting counterpoint to Monday’s session on Prince Philip, in which it seemed every MP was determined to give a long speech about a man they’d barely known, Tuesday saw a few speak briefly about a woman they’d worked alongside for decades, and whose passing they clearly felt keenly. Bernard Jenkin at one point looked like he might be unable to finish. It would take a hard heart to be left unmoved by the warmth with which all sides remembered Gillan.
And then we switched from Parliament at its most sincere to Parliament at its most business-as-usual, as Scully prepared to take fire in the place of men who, one sensed, had already forgotten his name.
Greensill Capital, the company at the heart of all this, had, Scully assured us, been handled in a completely proper and usual way. There was nothing to see here, except for some questions about its compliance with emergency loan rules, which might well be quite interesting but were unfortunately under investigation, making it inappropriate for him to comment. Please move along.
Johnson doesn’t take responsibility for his own actions, so why should anyone else in the government?
Anneliese Dodds, for Labour, was unimpressed. She had noticed that Scully was not Sunak. “It was the Chancellor who needed to come to the House today,” she began, “the Chancellor who told David Cameron that he would ‘push’ his team to amend emergency loan schemes to suit Cameron’s new employer; the Chancellor whose officials met with Greensill 10 times.”
Scully, in his reply, attempted to patronise. Dodds, he said, should ask “a different question”. The Covid loan scheme she wanted to know about had nothing to do with Sunak. It was run by the Business Department. Duh!
The trouble with this, as Dodds had already pointed out, was that there was a time, not a couple of weeks ago, when Sunak was very happy to be associated with all the Covid rescue schemes. When, indeed, his branding appeared all over the ads announcing them, rather than the logo of either the Conservative Party or the Treasury. The scheme in question was announced by him, and than expanded by him. The first press release on it begins: “The Chancellor Rishi Sunak is today…” The Business Department had to wait until the 18th paragraph for its mention. This was, after all, why Cameron called Sunak about it, rather than someone else.
Of course, this is all of a piece. Johnson doesn’t take responsibility for his own actions, so why should anyone else in the government? If in due course it’s shown that encouraging everyone to pile into restaurants in August helped spread the virus, we can expect to be told that “Rishi’s Dinners” were all the work of a junior official in the Scotland Office.
Labour’s Tan Dhesi asked again why Sunak had neither “the courtesy nor the courage” to come to the chamber. Scully was dismissive. “If he wants the Chancellor to come to answer a question, he might ask a question that relates to the Treasury,” he said. This is of course total rubbish. Even if the Treasury hadn’t been able to palm the question off on the Business Department, there’s no way Sunak would have pitched up to answer it. Why keep junior ministers and defend yourself?
The Greensill questions are currently ones that few people understand, and that take a long time to explain. In the early stages of a scandal, that can help the government, but there’s a tipping point after which people still don’t understand the story but they assume that, in Dhesi’s words, “this stinks”. At that point, they won’t be able to get away with sending out junior ministers to deny everything.
But until then, if Labour want Rishi Sunak to answer questions, asking them in the House of Commons isn’t going to work. They need to spoof David Cameron’s mobile number, and send him a text.
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