It has become the defining theme of Boris Johnson’s misrule: one rule for them, one rule for us. This – let’s call it the Johnson doctrine – looks like the prime minister’s epitaph, with Tory MPs privately saying it’s now a matter of when and not if his party defenestrates him.
They know how deep the hole they are in is. They are aware that the mockery of cartoonists, comedians and the creators of Twitter memes has gained traction beyond what’s known as the Westminster village and the wider community of people interested in politics. But will changing the person at the top if the Tory party change the Johnson doctrine as the government’s guiding principle?
The prime minister is the foremost exponent of “one rule” and always has been. There continues to be controversy over his Downing Street flat’s refurbishment, his late and/or incomplete declarations to the register of members interests, his freebie jaunt to Marbella, and his government’s interference in public appointments. But this sort of behaviour is far from unique to Johnson.
Take the Owen Paterson affair – another self-inflicted wound in which the government tried to tear up the parliamentary rulebook to shield the MP for North Shropshire from sanction for breaking lobbying rules. Yes, this was primarily Johnson’s sin. But let’s not forget he was encouraged by his fellow old Etonian Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has been doing the rounds in defence of the boss.
Rees-Mogg is another exponent of the Johnson doctrine. In January, the leader of the House of Commons was seen attending St Mary’s catholic church in Glastonbury, which had been under tier 4 Covid restrictions before the last national lockdown came into force. That meant travelling from his home in his North East Somerset constituency, which had been in tier 3, to join a special “old rite” Latin mass. Government guidance explicitly stated that people should not travel between tiers. They were told to avoid travelling at all “whenever possible”.
Rees-Mogg appears to have felt that attending this mass outweighed his responsibility to protect his constituents. It might just be me, but that’s a strange sort of Christianity, one far removed from the concept of “love thy neighbour” and the exhortation to “heal the sick” that I was taught at a Church of England primary school.
But, then, it seems to me that Rees-Mogg doesn’t even subscribe to loving thy fellow Tory MPs and unionists, having snidely described his party’s Scottish leader Douglas Ross as an “insubstantial figure” for daring to criticise the PM.
Let’s move on to the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, who slammed the BBC for alleged nepotism even though she had employed her daughters Phillipa and Jennifer to work as secretaries in her private office in 2012. This meant that the Dorries daughters were paid from public funds, at the not inconsiderable cost to the taxpayer of up to £80,000.
Secretary of state for culture, media and sport or secretary of state for shamelessness? The latter seems to me to be the more appropriate title, given Dorries’ appearance on ITV’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here, and her failure to declare the fee that led to a censure from the parliamentary standards watchdog.
Were you or I just to have ditched our work responsibilities in favour of being on the telly, we would probably have lost our jobs, notwithstanding the question of the fees, but of course, it’s one rule for them.
Rees-Mogg and Dorries are, of course, Johnsonites to the core and enthusiastic adherents to his personal credo. If, when, his ship sinks they may go down with it. That is not true of Rishi Sunak, who may be the next Tory leader. The story of the swimming pool, gym and tennis courts he’s building beside his historic North Yorkshire home, wasn’t widely reported outside of Yorkshire. The planning application was being considered while the richest MP in the House was taking £20 out of the pockets of the poorest Britons courtesy of last year’s cruel cut to universal credit.
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It reportedly divided Tories on Hambleton District Council’s planning committee, and created quite the local controversy. An officers’ report to the meeting stated the council’s policy was that development in Kirby Sigston would only be supported when an exceptional case, relating to farming, environmental improvement, affordable housing, reusing existing buildings, renewable energy and social and economic regeneration, could be made for the proposal.
But Sunak’s application was nonetheless approved. Now, I’m just raising the question, but do you think that would have happened if the application had been submitted by someone other than the chancellor of the exchequer? Really?
How about Robert Jenrick, a former cabinet minister that even Johnson couldn’t keep in the government? Jenrick recently moaned about the acquittal by a jury of four protestors, who toppled the statue of a racist slave trader in Bristol “undermining the rule of law”. The fact that he was found to have broken it by approving a £1bn luxury development is fine only under Johnson’s one rule doctrine. From what I can see, it’s an example of rancid hypocrisy to those of us not in the privileged caste of Tory MPs and ministers.
I could go on. And on, and on. There was the Greensill lobbying scandal involving David Cameron, the way peerages and honours are doled out, former health secretary Matt Hancock’s lockdown snogging and Johnson’s attempts to defend him. Honestly, it’s exhausting. But it’s also disgusting and seemingly deeply ingrained in the ethos of the people at the top of the Tory party.
The Johnson doctrine will surely survive his ousting. It will continue to corrode trust in public life under his successors, because they largely subscribe to it. This appears to me to be the twisted reality of today’s Tory party. After approaching two decades of sleaze and hypocrisy, it badly needs the corrective of a spell in opposition, because unless – and until – there is a price exacted for this sort of behaviour, it will continue unabated.
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