“Politics taught me one thing” Boris Johnson said during his visit to India: “That means you speak better and focus on the things that matter, the things that make a real difference to the electorate, and not about the politicians themselves.”
He also said the investigation into Partygate should not “go on and on and on”.
MPs drew a different lesson from the controversy that eclipsed the Prime Minister’s visit. Realizing they had to talk about themselves – or at least the Prime Minister’s behavior – they rightly insisted on a Commons inquiry into whether Johnson had misled Parliament about Downing Street parties during the lockdown.
Johnson could tarnish the reputation of his party and cabinet ministers, who must defend him.
But many Tories – including some junior ministers and parliamentary assistants who threatened to resign if an inquiry was delayed – recognized that parliament would lose public credibility if it ignored its repeated, misleading statements about the parties.
They also worried about their own reputation. For them, the government’s initial attempt to halt an investigation by the Privileges Committee had uncomfortable echoes of the Owen Paterson fiasco (MP Paterson resigned last year after a lobby uproar) that precipitated Johnson’s downfall. (does he ever learn?)
Labor’s proposal for an inquiry was a win-win for Keir Starmerwho’s been gaining stature with three statesmanlike and effective Commons appearances on Partygate this week.
If Tory MPs delayed an inquiry, Labor would accuse them of a cover-up in their constituencies. If they were to force Johnson to make a concession – as they did by threatening to abstain in large numbers – it would prolong the torment of the Tories until the autumn, as will be the case now.
The muddle over Thursday’s vote added to the intense frustration of Tory backbenchers and undermined Johnson’s claim to have tightened his No 10 operation following criticism in Sue Gray’s first Partygate report.
The rebellion was not just about MPs’ personal prospects. It marked the moment when many Tories were no longer willing to defend Johnson. They’re not ready to depose him yet, but this week’s events are very ominous.
“This was a stopover on a trip; People will eventually get there,” a former minister told me. Enough MPs recognized that Parliament’s whole purpose of holding the government to account rests on ministers telling the truth. It used to be taken for granted that all members were “honorable”.
But not under a populist prime minister who shows little respect for such traditions once in a hole.
MEPs should now go further and insist on reforms to fill the gaps in the UK’s unwritten constitution. It doesn’t require years of commission or even extensive verification. But small steps could make a big difference by preventing Johnson or any successor from ignoring the spirit of the rules.
For example, Christopher Geidt, Johnson’s adviser on ministerial interests, should be given the power to launch investigations into the behavior of ministers, including the prime minister, rather than waiting for the prime minister’s permission.
This would weaken Johnson’s position as judge, jury and upholder of the ministerial code that developed when no one imagined Britain would have a Trump-like leader.
Steve Baker, a superb backbench organizer and Brexiteer who has now turned against Johnson, made a good point in the debate: “If the Prime Minister held any other post of high responsibility, if he were Foreign Secretary, if he were Minister of a Secretary of State , a parliamentary secretary of state, a general manager, if he were the CEO of a private company he would have been dead long ago.”
But the safest bet in politics is that Boris Johnson won’t sack himself.
Of course, a consultant like Geidt could not have the authority to remove a PM. But having the right to examine him and publish his findings would allow MPs to pass judgment.
Opinion polls suggest people are turning to Partygate: three out of four believe Johnson wasn’t telling the truth.
Despite this, some loyalist MPs privately argue that the controversy will have subsided by the next general election, saying the 2019 MP spending scandal had surprisingly little impact in the 2020 election.
They’re right if they think the cost of living crisis will be a bigger headache for the Tories in 2024. But elections are not isolated events, and Partygate is likely to provide a damaging backdrop if Johnson still leads his party. I don’t think memories will fade as quickly as these Johnson allies are hoping.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/tories-not-yet-ready-to-oust-their-leader-but-they-wont-defend-him-41579010.html Tories are not ready to overthrow their leader, but they will not defend him