Boris Johnson's downfall will be the truth
- Credit: AFP via Getty Images
Boris Johnson created an administration in his own image, and it is doing irreparable damage to our country
Shortly before he stepped down after a decade as prime minister, Tony Blair hosted a dinner at Chequers for advisers who had been with him more or less since he became Labour leader. In every one of the ensuing 14 years, there has been an annual TB Team ‘94 Christmas gathering.
Several who were at Chequers, such as David Miliband, Peter Mandelson, Pat McFadden, James Purnell, had gone on to be MPs and ministers. Sally Morgan ended up in the Lords. So did Philip Gould, sadly no longer with us.
Chief of staff Jonathan Powell was with TB from 1994-2007, deputy chief of staff Liz Lloyd even longer, as she had been with him before he became leader, as had Anji Hunter, Kate Garvey, Tim Allan, Sarah Hunter, who have all gone on to very different careers, though all using the skills developed working in politics, campaigns, and government.
Peter Hyman was making his way as a teacher, en route to becoming an innovative headteacher. David Hill had replaced me in Number 10. His partner Hilary Coffman had worked in my press team since the start, and with several Labour leaders before TB. Others, less well-known perhaps, and happy to be so, are all in gainful employment, and good people.
Given the lockdown, last year’s dinner had to be virtual, despite which the banter, and the reflections on politics past, present and future flowed easily. At one point Tony Blair said: “Do you think the other ex-PMs get their old teams together like this?” To which I replied: “I don’t know, but I guarantee you that Boris Johnson won’t once he’s gone.”
In my book about winning, Winners and How They Succeed, I said winning required a holy trinity of strategy, leadership and teamship. The leader is fundamental to the successful implementation of the other two. Good strategy is impossible without a good leader and a good team. And building a strong team is one of the most important traits that a leader has to have.
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It is all too easy to blame advisers, but every single adviser chosen by the leader says something about that leader. Johnson knew what Dominic Cummings was before he took him into Number 10 – yes, hard-working, determined, quirky, prepared to challenge, but he also knew he was capable of distorting the truth to suit his agenda without appearing to feel shame about it, accused of aggressive behaviour towards colleagues and having the habit of destroying things without seeming to care how to put them back together again.
Another of the old TB team, my partner Fiona Millar, who specialises in education policy and campaigns, tracked Cummings’ role as an advisor to then education secretary Michael Gove. When Johnson took Cummings into Number 10 as his senior advisor, her response was immediate. “Well, that’ll end in tears.”
It almost ended in tears over Cummings’ lockdown-busting trip to Barnard Castle, after which Johnson and his nodding dog cabinet used up inordinate amounts of political capital saving someone without whom, or so it seemed, he could not live. The tears were kept at bay, only to flow – though not for the civil servants he was leaving behind – once Cummings finally left Number 10, not over electoral law-breaking by his Vote Leave campaign or lockdown rule-breaking, but because he was rude about Johnson’s current partner.
Carrie Symonds is at the heart of one of the allegations levelled at Johnson by Cummings – that he was warned the arrangements he was making to pay for the ludicrously expensive refurbishment of the Downing Street flat were “potentially illegal”. I for one do not believe the Number 10 line that Johnson has now paid for the refurbishment “from his own money”, and MPs and media need to press and press for the truth.
Bear in mind we still don’t know who paid for his Mustique holiday, the one before the Chevening holiday when he was sorting out his private life and ignoring the Covid crisis heading our way – “moving heaven and earth,” as he now likes to style it. Bear in mind too, that unless Johnson paid for the work on the flat at all stages of the process, he is already in breach of the ministerial code.
There was something else Johnson knew about Cummings before conceding to his demands that he be given free rein to rampage around Number 10, dress like a student and drive his own agenda – that he neither cares for nor respects the Tory Party; and that he likes blowing things up. Perhaps, having been sacrificed in the way he was, Cummings was always going to seek revenge on Johnson.
Which makes it all the weirder that it was Johnson who took the immediately backfiring decision to call his favoured editors and ask them to run front page stories accusing Cummings of leaking his former boss’s tax-policy-changing texts with James Dyson.
What was it I said here last week about Johnson trying to turn the focus on David Cameron’s money-grubbing lobbying as a way of deflecting attention from difficult questions about his own conduct and standards? “It has played into the hands of those rare souls who have been trying to make Johnson’s character, and his role in the denigration of standards in public life, an issue for some time.”
So it has, and his tantrum-fuelled phone calls to the editors has played into them even more.
It was Tim Walker, a former Telegraph colleague of Johnson and now this newspaper’s Mandrake columnist, who said that “those who know him best like him least”, and I hope it is not too egocentric – égocentrique, MOI? – to point out the asymmetry with the statement Tony Blair issued when I finally left my full-time post in Number 10: “Those who know him best like him best.”
The character of the team matters. And it often reflects the character of the leader. Blair expected very high standards of his team. But then his team saw day in, day out, that he demanded and delivered high standards of himself too. It was not that those of us gathered at Chequers for that dinner in 2007 had not had fierce arguments in the preceding 13 years and since – see the diaries, volumes 1-8 – but we were a team, with a leader we liked, respected, and trusted, goals on which we agreed and which we pursued together, and real friendships and loyalties were forged in the battles we fought together, friendships and loyalties which will endure to the grave, and survive the ups and downs.
Johnson does not have friendships. He has people he uses. He does not have a moral compass, so feels comfortable having similar people in his midst. He likes laying down rules for others, but does not see rules as applying to himself, so feels more at ease in his rule-breaking if he has other rule-breakers to advise him. His team is a reflection of him, getting away with what they can, for as long as they can. Some of the conflict of interest issues thrown up by recent events, including for his own senior team, are mind-blowing.
We know what happens when thieves fall out. They turn on each other. And that is what we are seeing now; Cummings seemingly worried that the allegations of Brexit law-breaking will catch up on him, getting the focus on potential law-breaking by Johnson instead. What a hideous bunch, and what irreparable damage they and their Vote Leave cabal have they done to our country.
Never mind Labour prime ministers, I do not believe Thatcher, Major, Cameron or May, whatever their faults and weaknesses, would have enabled the kind of moral degeneracy which Johnson has introduced to the heart of government.
Sometimes, endless repetition is necessary to get a point to connect and penetrate the public debate. Forgive me if I end this column in exactly the same way as I ended last week’s, with a reminder of HOOSIAL, the seven Nolan principles supposed to govern standards in public life.
"Honesty. Openness. Objectivity. Selflessness. Integrity. Accountability. Leadership. They all matter. Brexit then the government’s handling of the Covid crisis have driven them from the political arena for too long. But they’re back. And they create a battlefield for which few are less suited than Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson."
Cummings, liar and cheat like his old boss though he may be, adds an interesting dimension to that battlefield. Their own battle having commenced, may it continue, until both are felled by the truth of who they are and what they have done.
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