The Brexit gag is a political act – but is Boris to blame?

The discrediting of Johnson would be a great prize for those advocating that Britian should remain in the EU

Andreas Whittam Smith
Wednesday 09 March 2016 18:41
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Boris Johnson on the Andrew Marr show, 6 March 2016
Boris Johnson on the Andrew Marr show, 6 March 2016

On first viewing, it was just a spat. The Remain in Europe campaign charged Boris Johnson, the Major of London, with hypocrisy. He had apparently gagged his staff from contradicting his views on Britain’s membership of the European Union while at the same time he had excoriated “agents of fear” working for the Prime Minister for “crushing” a senior business leader who called for Britain to vote Leave.

When one set of politicians charges another set with hypocrisy one can only smile. But then consider what turns on the outcome of the Brexit debate and the high level of invective becomes more understandable.

It took us 15 years of hesitation from 1945 to the early 1960s to decide or whether or not to join the Common Market. Yet since the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 – which created a new structure, the European Union, and paved the way for the eurozone – British public opinion has grown ever more negative. Only the decisions taken during the Second World War were of greater weight.

In this context, the discrediting of Johnson would be a great prize for those advocating that Britain should remain in the EU, for he is the star of the Leave campaign. His status as the most popular Tory figure was confirmed this week by a Conservative Home poll of 2,400 party members. Some 33 per cent of them want him to be the next party leader. So the spat deserves some forensic examination.

What happened was that Sir Edward Lister, the chief of staff to the Mayor of London, sent a memorandum to senior colleagues advising them what they could and what they could not do. Remember that they are not elected members of the Greater London Authority (GLA), over which the Mayor presides but officials, akin to civil servants; there have to be some impartiality rules.

The memorandum was described as “a formal advice note”. Within the GLA, that status gives it more or less the force of law. Officers are told that Boris – as they call the Mayor, even in semi-legal documents – “is entitled, as Mayor, to adopt a public position on this issue”. That is obviously right, for the Brexit decision will strongly affect the prosperity and standing of London. But because the Mayor can adopt a public position, the memorandum goes on, he is “entitled to receive support from GLA officers in relation to that policy issue”.

So how much room does that duty (which, again, must be right) leave for officials to express their own views on this important issue? The advice states that GLA officers, when not at work, can express personal opinions – which may be contrary to the Mayor’s views. If only the advice had stopped there. For what comes next goes beyond a careful explanation of well-established rules: “While this [expressing personal opinions] is the formal position… I would expect, given your roles, you either to advocate the Mayor’s position or otherwise not openly to contradict it.”

This is a gag whichever way you look at it. Think what it means. You are a GLA official. You come home one evening, say, to spend a pleasant few hours with friends. The talk turns to the advantages and disadvantages of Brexit, as it is almost bound to do given that the subject dominates every newspaper and every broadcast. Even reports of the refugee crisis on the Continent serve to bring up the question.

But then you remember the formal advice note. If you argue in favour of Leave, you will have the uneasy feeling that you are merely obeying orders. On the other hand, you are not expected openly to contradict the Mayor’s position. You stay silent. What else can you do?

That is what a gag feels like, and its imposition is a political act. The memorandum would not have been phrased in the way it has been had it not been intended to bring advantage to the Leave campaign.

Yes, but exactly whose gag is it? Is the chief of staff the author, acting independently of the Mayor? Normally I would say this was implausible. I am familiar with the ways of chiefs of staff; I have just sat on a panel charged with appointing a chief of staff for a leading national figure. Good chiefs of staff display intense loyalty to their bosses and would never, ever, do anything which might embarrass them.

But Sir Edward is more of a deputy mayor than just the head of a private office. He would feel that he could act independently.

As for Johnson, when charged with having imposed the gag, he said on Tuesday: “Nobody has been gagged, I was only made aware of this edict very late last night and it ceased to be operative as soon as I was made aware of it… it’s a cock-up and not something I agree with.”

I think what came into play was a process first identified by historians trying to explain how Hitler was able to impose his wishes on the executive branches of the German government without issuing an enormous number of specific orders. People in chains of command anticipate known or presumed wishes.

I think the City Hall bureaucracy thought they were doing what the Mayor would want. Now he says they were wrong. They won’t be surprised, however. Deniability is a standard tactic when politicians think they are in trouble.

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