Quote of the week, from a retired civil servant with decades of experience in Whitehall: “I’ve worked for ministers who are good at their job, and also nice people; I’ve worked for ministers who are nice people but hopeless at their job; and I’ve worked for ministers who are good at their job but total sh**s. All I hear from officials today is that they’re working for people who are hopeless at the job, and total sh**s.”
There will be exceptions, of course, but they are likely to be lower down the ministerial food chain. Indeed, when I was invited as a mental health campaigner to take part in a meeting with the culture minister Caroline Dinenage about the Online Harms Bill, I was rather impressed. Definitely not a s**t. But I am guessing most of you have never heard of her. Of those you have heard all too much, the ones wheeled out to defend whatever indefensible Boris Johnson needs defending, I will simply list the names, and leave it to you to score them on the hopeless-ometer, and the s**t-ometer.
Priti Patel. Dominic Raab. Robert Jenrick. Gavin Williamson. Grant Shapps. Robert Buckland. Oliver Dowden. Rishi Sunak. Michael Gove (though these last two strike me as being very picky about when they go out to bat, suggesting permanent manoeuvres are in play, based on the understanding that eventually, hopelessness plus sh**tiness, surely, will be a lethal combination for a prime minister.)
It is Johnson who sets the tone. He is the most high profile and the most powerful. He scores very high on hopelessness, other than on campaigning, political messaging, gaslighting and hard-hat photocalls. And he scores very, very high on the s**t-ometer. As Tim Walker of these parts, a former colleague of Johnson at the Daily Telegraph, puts it, those who know him best like him least.
My ex-civil servant friend said officials can live with nastiness and narcissism, provided there is basic competence there. But in the art of governing, there is next to none. A current civil servant told me I was giving the Number 10 machine far too much credit in thinking they were deliberately creating diversions to detract from embarrassments.
“It is just chaos in there,” he said. “Nobody has a grip.” Even aiming off for the evident revenge in Dominic Cummings’ recent assaults on his former boss (sic), he echoes a truth long suspected about Johnson… unfocused, unconcerned with detail, obsessed with news management and the political game ahead of governing and the national interest.
It was evident in my ex-civil service colleague’s lament that officials can tolerate a minister being a s**t if there is clarity of purpose, and an adherence to principles accepted by both the political and the official parts of government, such as the rule of law, telling the truth in parliament, and at least an attempt to abide by the Nolan Principles of standards in public life: honesty, openness, objectivity, selflessness, integrity, accountability, and leadership.
There are none of those things in the Johnson regime, beyond the leadership by example, in which by his own conduct he encourages others to lie, cheat, not worry overly about the law, or the use and misuse of public money, and debase themselves in the robotic delivery of messages crafted in Number 10.
I had mistakenly imagined Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis to be cut from a slightly different cloth than those I list above. Though he is, thanks to Brexit and Johnson’s indifference to Northern Ireland, making a bit of a hash of things there, I had at least gained the impression he spoke human, with a non-posh boy accent to match.
My assumption that he was state school educated – in my view likely to encourage the said speaking of human – turns out to be wrong; not only was he privately educated, he was until 2012 a director of a provider of private primary schools. Hey ho. Oliver Dowden has gone the other way – went to a comprehensive school, sounds and acts like he is desperately trying to pretend he didn’t.
Lewis was on the airwaves defend the indefensible duty on Sunday morning, and among the programmes he had to do was Trevor Phillips, standing in for Sophy Ridge on Sky News. Phillips recently lost his daughter Sushila, who for years had struggled with anorexia, and due to Covid restrictions, hundreds attended the funeral on Zoom, because that is the ‘rule’ health secretary Matt Hancock had laid down for others. Phillips made the not unreasonable point that the next time the government asked him to restrict his freedoms, he was entitled to tell them to get lost.
Lewis’s response was, even by the standards of this government, mind-blowing. Not even a nod to the desperately sad story his interviewer had just told, not even ‘sorry for your loss’, but straight into a defence of Matt Hancock for resigning, and of Boris Johnson for not sacking him.
Then, as if he could not see how deeply he was digging, he became the winner of ‘short quote of the week,’ namely “fair play Matt”, as we were asked to agree that Hancock had been acting in the interests of his family – yes, his family, the one he had just blown up, and left to the mercies of the doorstepping media at its worst – and then, the country. He did it for us, folks!
The following morning, Robert Buckland – the justice secretary, the man who swore an oath to uphold the rule of law – was on defend-the-indefensible duty. He said he would not be able to sit in government if he did not think Johnson was committed to the rule of law, and the highest standards in public life.
He said that, even after the BBC’s Nick Robinson took him through a succession of scandals – Hancock, Cummings and Barnard Castle, Patel and bullying, Jenrick and law-breaking sleaze – and in so far as Buckland had a defence, it was that they did well in the local elections, so who cares? I missed the next bit because my partner Fiona was shouting at the radio: “I don’t know how these people sleep at night.”
They sleep at night because under Johnson’s leadership, they have emptied out the part of their being where a moral compass may once have resided. Hancock went, and we are expected to praise him for his hard work and love of family. Johnson didn’t sack him, and his ministers expect us to believe this is a man who believes rules should be uniformly obeyed across society.
German journalist Annette Dittert, who covers the UK for ARD TV, asked an interesting question: “What does a minister here have to do to be sacked?”
The answer, I fear, is that they would have to suggest that Brexit wasn’t going very well. Or perhaps that the government needed to do more to meet its international obligations. Or help the poorest in Britain. In Johnsonland, you risk the sack if you tell the truth.
Lie, cheat, be useless, or be a s**t, and so far as Johnson is concerned, you can do no wrong.
Politics as a moral vacuum. It cannot last.
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