Andy McSmith: Moggygate has highlighted a loss of honour in politics


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The Cabinet catfight over a Bolivian immigrant's pet mog is not as silly as it seems. Underlying it is a serious issue of good governance, in which the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, has behaved properly and Theresa May, with Downing Street's connivance, has demeaned public life.

There used to be a time when British politicians accepted responsibility for the actions of public servants, even taking the blame for mistakes by their officials, as Lord Carrington did after the invasion of Falklands.

There is no point in expecting a return to those gentlemanly days, but we can ask that ministers do not attack officials for the sake of a cheap round of applause. Or if they feel they must, they could at minimum get their facts right.

No matter how Mrs May's apologists try to spin it, what she told the Conservative Party conference this week was untrue. There was no "illegal immigrant who can't be deported because he had a pet cat". Ken Clarke was not the first to point out this simple fact. When the story surfaced in the right-wing press two years ago, the Royal Courts of Justice issued a formal denial. They re-issued the denial almost as soon as Theresa May had finished speaking. Mrs May's defenders are not merely implying that the justice system is staffed by idiots, but by liars too, whereas Ken Clarke has done what politicians with a sense of honour used to do. On hearing public officials being unfairly attacked, he came to their defence.

But in modern politics, nothing matters half so much as the next headline. With that in mind, the Prime Minister's office came down on the side of the minister whose facts were wrong. Tim Montgomerie, founder of the respected ConservativeHome website, even called yesterday for Ken Clarke's dismissal "whatever the accuracy of Theresa May's remarks". These days, it seems, for a politician to get his facts right when colleagues are acting like idiots is a sacking offence.