The prime minister’s response to ‘partygate’ is a wild orgy of populist policies, says Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins
For the past fortnight Sue Gray’s report on “partygate” has been hovering over Downing Street like a huge vulture, seeking only somewhere to land. A redacted version is expected imminently. In the meantime, Boris Johnson
is panicking. For partygate he has substituted policygate, a wild orgy of populist pronouncements designed to show he is still in charge. If Johnson
cannot lie himself out of trouble, perhaps he can bribe himself out of it.
What do you want, everyone? I would get the Treasury to let you off extra taxes, if only that mean Rishi Sunak would let me. I can promise help with gas bills and heating allowances. I can shower the north of England with money and mayors. I can let you visit your loved ones in care homes, perhaps. I can even get on a plane, fly east and pretend to threaten Vladimir Putin with war.
I can remind the country of my Brexit triumph by cutting £1bn in bureaucracy. I can let NHS staff off vaccinations and get tough on oligarchs’ boltholes. I can promise to sack the Downing Street madhouse staff and move my office to the House of Commons tearoom. I can leave Carrie in charge.
British government is experiencing the reality of personality politics. There is no cabinet government, just cabals of courtiers, rivals and enemies. There is no democratic legislature, just an alternative court in waiting. Leadership has no recourse to ideology, to principles, even to a programme. Party has no meaning beyond opinion polls. The one guiding fixation of the UK government is its leader’s desire to stay in power.
It is unlikely that the outcome of the contest between Sue Gray’s report on partygate and the Metropolitan police’s inquiry was a deliberate save-Johnson
tactic. That suggests a cunning beyond the wit of the present Downing Street. It rather indicates the collapse of parliament as any sort of monitor of standards in public life. But, at the end of the day, Gray will have taken the heat off the prime minister. He has been given a last desperate throw of the dice.
That it takes the imminence of defenestration to concentrate Johnson
’s mind on government is comment enough on his leadership. His posturing against Russia is an absurd diversion. He has lost his battle with Sunak on the rise in national insurance. His daily one-man conduct of the health sector is whimsical and extravagant.
The cabinet and parliamentary party are now aware, with varying degrees of explicitness, that they have a prime minister unable to conduct coherent cabinet government. His usefulness to them has solely been to win elections. He has done this in the past through charm. He now seeks to do it by brazen survival instinct, by fight not flight.
The moment to topple Johnson
was by a vote of his MPs a fortnight ago. The Sue Gray/Cressida Dick fiasco has awarded him time to assemble his fair-weather friends and cajole, bribe and bully them into giving him another chance. Johnson
’s patronage, like his VIP contracts, must have yielded some tidy debts to be called in. There is a sense in Westminster that his darkest hour may have passed. The vulture still hovers, but Johnson
’s luck has held and its feathers appear to have been plucked, at least for a while. And in politics a while is an age.