‘Toxic, withering, depressing’: If only Tory MPs would tell us how they really feel

For five full hours, the House of Commons debated whether it had been misled by the prime minister

Tom Peck
Thursday 21 April 2022 19:00 BST
He is acting, as ever, not so much the pantomime clown – but the playground bully
He is acting, as ever, not so much the pantomime clown – but the playground bully (REUTERS/Toby Melville)

That’ll be three investigations then. There’s the first, by the civil service, into whether lockdown rules were broken in Downing Street (they were).

Then there’s the second, by the police, into whether the law was broken in Downing Street (it was, by the prime minister).

And now there’ll be the third, into whether the prime minister “knowingly misled” the House of Commons about the first two.

The outcome of that one is not yet known, and it is important we do not prejudice that inquiry. For who of us can look into the souls of men – in this case the House of Commons Privileges Committee – and know what they will find?

How can we know whether they will conclude that Boris Johnson was telling the truth when he said that “all Covid guidelines were followed at all times”?

Sure, there are the 80 or so people who have been fined, including himself; there was his birthday party, at which there was cake, beer and singing with his wife and his interior designer, but he was “frankly unaware” that could be described as “indoor socialising”.

Then there was the bring-your-own booze party in his garden, and the party in his actual flat; both of which he has told the House of Commons didn’t actually happen, even though he was at them.

There also happens to be that footage of the now ex-Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, very reluctantly announcing the launch of her investigation, on camera at City Hall three months ago.

Specifically, there’s the bit where she patiently explains that the four factors for issuing a fixed penalty notice – which include the person or persons “knew or ought to have known” that an offence was being committed – and there being “little ambiguity around the absence of any reasonable defence.”

In the police’s view, in Boris Johnson’s case both these conditions have been met, at least once, and are likely to be met again, on at least two further occasions.

Naturally, absolutely anybody can tell that they make a complete absurdity of the notion that Johnson has not lied to the House of Commons.

And, what does make life more difficult for Johnson is that it is an absurdity he has had to give up on expecting his own MPs to uphold.

For five full hours on Thursday afternoon, the House of Commons debated whether it had been misled by the prime minister. Arguably the most striking aspect was that they did so in a fashion far more edifying than the subject matter would intimate. None of them, or precious few of them, want to be debased and degraded in the way the current prime minister forces them to be.

It began with some parliamentary procedural nonsense on amendments and the withdrawing of amendments – which is, as ever, far too tedious to explain, but the gist of it is thus: two-and-a-half years ago, Boris Johnson won an 80-seat majority, the biggest Tory majority in almost 40 years.

Yet two-and-a-half years later, he doesn’t have the authority to compel his MPs to defeat a motion that says, in effect, that he has lied to the House of Commons – which is a resigning matter.

And it’s hardly surprising. All of his MPs have seen their colleagues making grand idiots of themselves over the past week, and the past four months; finding themselves compelled to defend the indefensible, and not all of them are prepared to do it.

William Wragg, who is only 34, but nevertheless chair of an important backbench committee – and a decent sort from a normal background – spoke the truth that so few of his lot have dared.

“It is utterly depressing, defending the indefensible,” he said. “Each time, a part of us withers. We have been working in a toxic atmosphere. There can be few colleagues who are truly enjoying being Members of Parliament at the moment.”

While he spoke, Johnson himself was in India. It is still not 24 hours since he became apoplectic at the despatch box of the House of Commons, at the accusation made by Keir Starmer, that he had accused the BBC of being more critical of his Rwanda policy than it had of Ukraine (these were comments deliberately briefed out by Johnson’s own team, which he now claims he never said).

“I have the highest admiration, as a journalist and a former journalist, for what journalists do,” he said then. “I think they do an outstanding job.”

And now watch him in action today, trying to belittle Beth Rigby from Sky News, turning to his aide and sulking as she attempts to ask him questions about his own dishonesty, tapping his watch, acting as ever, not so much the pantomime clown but the playground bully.

These are the actions of a person for whom words are just tools to get from one hour to the next, devoid of all meaning, detached from all truth.

Steve Baker, once and arguably still one of Johnson’s greatest admirers, spent almost six full minutes praising Johnson’s many virtues, lost though they may be on many, before concluding, “the gig’s up. He should be long gone.”

What had aggrieved Baker so much, he said, is that he had listened to Johnson’s humble apology on Tuesday and been minded to offer him his Christian forgiveness. And then, moments later, there he was listening to Johnson’s address to Tory MPs. “I am sorry to say it was its usual orgy of adulation. It was a great festival of bombast.”

Baker, it appears, was stunned to learn that Johnson is not really sorry. That when he said he was sorry, on Tuesday, who knows, there is at least a sniff of a chance he was misleading the house yet again.

It’s not clear at this point whether this third investigation will have that within its remit, but it would be a fitting conclusion if it did. A trained chimp can see Johnson has lied to the Commons on repeated occasions. Baker, one of his keener disciples once, doesn’t even believe his apology. So why should anyone else?

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In the midst of all this, the Met Police quietly announced they would not be announcing any further news on any further Downing Street fines until after the local elections. Something to do with the rules about what can and can’t be said during an election period. That the police can’t tell you whether or not the leader of a party has broken the law until after you’ve voted for them seems like the sort of thing that would be too laughable even for Kim Jong Un to try – but there we are.

It does mean that, in a few weeks, the Conservatives will be having to wonder whether all this is going as well as they thought. Some doubtless terrible election results, and a leader that’s been done for breaking the law – again.

If they don’t act soon, there will be no part left of them that hasn’t withered.

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