Boris Johnson thought he could get away with his Jimmy Savile comment – it backfired spectacularly

You could tell Johnson knew he was smearing Keir Starmer because of the slight hesitation as he unleashed this supposedly lethal weapon, as well as his insertion of a few weasel words

Sean O'Grady
Tuesday 01 February 2022 21:57 GMT
Boris Johnson’s Savile claim ‘a ridiculous slur’, says Keir Starmer

It says a lot that, when Boris Johnson found himself trying to wriggle his way out of trouble, he should recklessly smear Keir Starmer with the old lie that he was some sort of accomplice of Jimmy Savile.

The fact checking service FullFact explains the background to this infamous smear as follows: “Mr Starmer was head of the Crown Prosecution Service when the decision was made not to prosecute Savile but he was not the reviewing lawyer for the case.

“A later investigation criticised the actions of both the CPS and the police in their handling of the situation. It did not suggest that Mr Starmer was personally involved in the decisions made.”

Sue Gray’s “update” on her report on law breaking in Downing Street formed a damning indictment on the prime minister, and he had no answer to it – so he resorted to lies. The sadness, as Starmer remarked, is that the public expects no better from this man, and that any fresh revelations about Downing Street dishonesty, corruption or law-breaking are wearily “priced in”.

Now the Speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, has rebuked the prime minister for what he said about Starmer: “Procedurally nothing disorderly occurred but such allegations should not be made lightly, especially in view of the guidance of Erskine May about good temper [and] moderation being the characteristics of parliamentary debate.

“While they may not have been disorderly, I am far from satisfied that the comments in question were appropriate on this occasion.”

Hoyle deals in understatement and dishes out his reprimands wrapped in politesse. In normal times, with a premier with a sense of decorum, such coded condemnation from a Speaker would be regarded as a deeply shameful moment. Obviously, Johnson will shrug it off. No one is surprised. Such is the debasement of public life.

You can tell that Johnson knew it was a smear because of the slight hesitation as he unleashed this supposedly lethal weapon, and his insertion of a few weasel words in a vain attempt to protect himself if challenged later.

This is what Johnson said by way of defence after the leader of the opposition said that he, the prime minister, was being investigated by the police for breaking locked own laws. It is hardly to the point: “That is because the report does absolutely nothing to substantiate the tissue of nonsense that he has just spoken – absolutely nothing. Instead, this leader of the opposition, a former Director of Public Prosecutions – although he spent most of his time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile, as far as I can make out – chose to use this moment continually to prejudge a police inquiry.”

Boris Johnson attacks Keir Starmer for 'failing to prosecute' Jimmy Savile

Note that Johnson used the word “nonsense” rather than the more usual idiom of lies in the phrase “tissue of nonsense”; and also the addition of “as far as I can make out” to the smear on Starmer’s reputation.

Johnson’s unsubstantiated comment about Starmer’s role in decisions about Savile is a common trope used on social media to try to discredit the Labour leader. As is the way of these things, it has acquired a life of its own. A myth such as this can be around the world in seconds these days, long before the truth has got its boots on, and that is presumably where the prime minister found it, on some Twitter feed. “As far as I can make out” means: “I saw this on Twitter and it looks useful because it will wind up Starmer and Labour, and I can’t be bothered to check it.”

According to reports, it wasn’t even an off-the-cuff remark made under pressure (though that would be no excuse), but a pre-planned tactic for what Johnson knew would be a difficult session trying to avoid responsibility for the parties held at Downing Street while the rest of the country was sticking to the lockdown he imposed. His advisers urged him not to go for it; he ignored them.

In the aftermath of his disastrous performance in the Commons, even members of his own cabinet declined to repeat the slander away from parliamentary privilege. Nadine Dorries, who defends the prime minister like a tigress protecting her own wayward albino cub, said she didn’t know the details (a plausible line, sadly). The deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, tried to excuse it as the “cut and thrust of parliamentary debate”. A lawyer by trade, like Starmer, Raab added the lawyerly caveat that “I can’t substantiate it”. Too right you can’t, Dominic.

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Other Tories go further. Former chief whip Julian Smith tweeted: “The smear made against Keir Starmer relating to Jimmy Saville yesterday is wrong and cannot be defended. It should be withdrawn. False and baseless personal slurs are dangerous, corrode trust and can’t just be accepted as part of the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate.”

A great parliamentarian has a feel for the mood of the House of Commons. Johnson has had some successes in the chamber in his time, but his response to the Sue Gray report update was not one of them. After another brief non-apology for mistakes “we” (not he) made, he just went off on one, rambling about freeports and levelling up, boasting – with an impressively staging face – about reducing crime, and then bringing up Savile to distract attention from the scandal in hand.

What, exactly, was the point Johnson was making? Was he trying to say Starmer was incompetent at his job? Was he suggesting that a trendy lefty lawyer such as Starmer just wasn’t bothered about sexual abuse of children? That Starmer was conniving to protect a paedophile? What was Johnson insinuating? It would be interesting to learn what the PM had in mind, and to hear him state it away from parliamentary privilege. Except that he’d probably rather talk about that than whether he was at a lockdown-busting party in his own flat.

Being accused of smearing an opponent is a lesser crime, and in Johnson’s world it counts as a win.

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