What does it profit a man?

Aw it’s not for you, it’s more of a Shelbyville wallpaper

You can rarely have it all in politics. On Monday afternoon, Tories could suck up to their boss, they could stand united with their party, but the sketch would be astonished if they could look at themselves in the mirror. Still, as the late Jim Steinman reminded us, two out of three ain’t bad.

But before we got to them, there was the Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, giving evidence to the Public Administration Committee.

“I’m very constrained in what I can say,” he began. Is it just the Sketch, or are Cabinet Secretaries getting younger? Case has a full head of hair, none of it grey. He speaks softly but firmly, reminiscent of a solicitor setting out a final offer that he’s sure you’ll agree is a generous settlement of your claim against his client, who admits neither liability nor responsibility nor, possibly, paternity.

He had come to update Parliament on the horror show that is Downing Street these days. We had been assured that his goal was not to make any headlines. If that’s true then we can only hope he’s better at other things he puts his mind to.

We learned that nobody knows how Lex Greensill got hired to work in Downing Street. We learned that the inquiry into who leaked what about lockdown is going nowhere, but also that he couldn’t talk about it, because he didn’t want to compromise it.

There was quite a lot of obfuscation. “I’m not trying to frustrate the committee,” he explained, although he was clearly succeeding. But the deep sigh that he let out when asked about the “propriety and ethics” aspects of his job spoke volumes.

Who can this leading candidate to act as the government’s ethical champion be? Can Prince Andrew be looking for a route back into public life already?

Readers may recall that Johnson lost his adviser on ministerial standards last year, when he resigned in protest, or possibly simply from exhaustion. A new appointment is imminent, Case said. “The prime minister is in the final stages of discussions with a leading candidate.”

Oh to be a fly on the wall in those Zoom chats. “Just hypothetically, if a minister had helped out a party donor with planning permission after meeting him at a fundraising dinner, would you see that as an issue? Ok, ok. And, let’s just say, I don’t know, let’s just say a minister’s pub landlord had got a contract to make medical equipment… I know, I know, mad example, but just imagine. Mmm, good. Can I ask how you feel about wallpaper?”

Who can this leading candidate to act as the government’s ethical champion be? Can Prince Andrew be looking for a route back into public life already?

Over in the Commons, Michael Gove was defending the prime minister’s honour. It was filthy, humiliating work that no self-respecting human would stoop to, and Gove was loving it. He was full of fake outrage, lobster-pink with pleasure as he attacked the opposition benches for suggesting that Boris Johnson – Boris Johnson! – was a man of less than complete integrity.

Rachel Reeves, for Labour, suggested that things were a bit stinky around Number 10 these days, what with the texts-for-favours, the slush-fund-for-furniture, and the contracts-for-mates. “I hope she’ll reflect on those words,” Gove said. The real corruption was in the Labour Party. “She must look at the beam in her own eye before criticising the mote in others’.” Quoting Jesus to defend Boris – the Sketch half-expected Gove to be struck dead on the spot. At the very least, a bishop should be sent down from the Lords to horsewhip him, but then he’d probably enjoy that.

Backbench Tories were no better, popping up one after another to suck up to Johnson by implying that the real scandal was that opposition MPs weren’t offering to pay for the prime minister’s redecorations themselves. Craig Whittaker courageously said the prime minister should pay less tax, a view he should discuss with his constituents.

Duncan Baker had apparently talked to his voters, and helpfully for his career prospects, it turned out they were “sick of this tittle tattle”. When, he asked Gove, “will we have an opposition who care about the actual priorities and not who the Downing Street decorators are?”

An hour earlier, Case had revealed that a team of civil servants has been working for the last 12 months on finding a way for Tory donors to pay for the decorators, suggesting that for someone in Downing Street, even in the midst of a pandemic, this was very much a priority. But no matter, Gove, who once claimed £7,000 for home furnishings in less than six months, agreed that the opposition was “more concerned about the world of interiors than about the real world.”

But even Gove has his limits. It had been suggested that he might put paid to the idea that the prime minister had announced he would rather see bodies piled in the street than announce another lockdown. Johnson himself had said the story wasn’t true. Would Gove match him in the Commons?

“The idea that you would say any such thing, I find incredible,” Gove said. “I was in that room, I never heard language of that kind.” It sounded at first like a denial, but it wasn’t quite. Perhaps Gove suspects that there is a recording somewhere, the sort of thing that would make this a bad hill to die on.

He’ll do anything, will Gove. But he won’t do that.

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