A quiet day, if anything, for the perma-beleagured prime minister. No one’s defected. No fresh allegations of naked jelly-wrestling parties in the Downing Street garden in lockdown. All that’s really happened is one of his senior backbenchers using parliamentary privilege to accuse the whips office of bullying and blackmailing MPs, and to encourage said MPs to get the police involved.
Quite a serious allegation, that, made by select committee chairman William Wragg, who was last seen bothering this column four years ago, when he appeared on the House of Commons terrace to waggle his order paper in exaltation at Nigel Farage as he tipped two crates of haddock over the side of a fishing boat and into the Thames.
Johnson was asked about the allegations against the whips. He said he had “seen no evidence” of such a thing, his trademark grandiose verbosity making way, yet again, for the kind of precise lawyerly language in which he has begun to specialise. Whyever could that be?
Look, whips twisting the arms of MPs into doing as they’re told is nothing new. There are so many stories of it that they’ve been made into several television series. In the 70s, the infamous Labour whip Walter Harrison is said to have quite literally grabbed one of his colleagues by the balls.
Where Johnson is, yet again, in trouble, is what underpins these allegations. He knows that if he is going to cling on, he needs enough of his MPs to decide that all this Downing Street parties nonsense will blow over, and he can then can get back to his grand, all-encompassing levelling up agenda, wooing never-voted-Tory-before types as they reckon only he can.
But when you need them to believe that you definitely are going to do some levelling up at the earliest possible opportunity, it really doesn’t help if quite a few of them seem to have stories not unlike the newly-defected MP for Bury South, who reckons he was told not to vote for such things as Marcus Rashford’s free school meals, and if he did he’d lose the money he was promised to build a new school in his constituency for the first time in decades.
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Obviously, no one knows what levelling up actually means. That’s half the point of it. But people definitely do know what it doesn’t mean. And it doesn’t mean strong-arming your MPs, sitting on wafer thin majorities in traditionally Labour areas, into prising food out of the mouths of hungry kids under the threat of taking their brand new school away.
There was, naturally, one other small catastrophe, which was the emergence of reports that party-buster-in-chief Sue Gray has got her hands on emails which show that people did warn his most senior staff that the bring your own booze party should not go ahead. But it did go ahead, and he did go to it, and there is not a soul alive who believes his explanation for doing so.
What’s even more worrying for Johnson is that it almost doesn’t matter. If it’s true that large numbers of his MPs are holding back to wait and see what Sue Gray has to say, it might well be that their minds get made up in the meantime. That even if he can find a way out of this current crisis, it’s become all too clear that he’s no use to them anyway.
The absurd party lies have simply made it clearer to see what they probably already knew. That everybody has already seen through him.
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