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Humpty Dumpty logic is setting the PM up for a great fall

The words integrity, professionalism and accountability mean what the Tories want them to mean, rather than what a dictionary might say

Rishi Sunak has not kept his promises on ‘integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level’. Image: TNE

Politicians often feel misunderstood and deserving of sympathy rather than the vilification that so frequently comes their way. According to a close colleague who confided in the Sunday Times, Rishi Sunak was heard wailing of his MPs and the public: “Why do people not realise that I’m right?”

The obvious answer to that is: “Because you have done so much wrong.” But sometimes the misunderstanding may be down to differing interpretations of what has been said.

Kemi Badenoch seems to be particularly prone to attacks by those who fail to comprehend that the business and trade secretary operates on the same basis as the Humpty Dumpty character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass

“When I use a word it means what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less,” Humpty Dumpty informed Alice.

Badenoch’s apparent adherence to this philosophy may explain her spats on matters as diverse as the sacking of the chairman of the Post Office, and export figures. The critics argue that she is being somewhat economical with the truth, while she simply means what she means. 

So when she assured parliament at the end of January that trade talks with Canada were “ongoing”, what she meant was that she might have a few words with her Canadian counterpart when they met the following month. Unfortunately, the Canadians did not see things from her perspective and were sufficiently incensed to say so very publicly.

What is clear is that whatever talks there were have definitely ceased now. As it was the Easter recess, the trade secretary was unable to tell parliament personally, but on April 1, Britain’s exporters of cars and processed foods woke up to a new trading environment in which some of their products would be subject to a tariff of 6% on exports to Canada.

The agreement that the post-Brexit UK should still benefit from the deal the EU has with Canada had come to an abrupt end. 

Arguments over Canada’s wish to export hormone-treated beef to the UK had proved the main obstacle, but it is not the only deal to be elusive. All the optimistic rhetoric about the glorious trade deals the UK would sign once free of the restraints of EU membership now have to be seen in the light of Humpty Dumpty logic.

Hence an agreement with the massive market that is India is on hold until after their elections, and Badenoch’s ambitions for a deal with the United States have been reduced to trying to sign up individual states. 

The public, and would-be exporters in particular, may feel disappointed – even let down – by a perceived government failure to deliver on its promises. The politicians, however, would deem this an unreasonable response. After all, they want the trade deals too, and they hadn’t specified an actual timetable for delivering them, had they? 

Perhaps it was equally unreasonable, verging on the completely gullible, to read very much into Sunak’s promise that he would lead an administration of “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”. The words simply meant what he wanted them to mean rather than what a dictionary might say.

To be fair, his predecessors in No 10 have not all set a high bar for achieving those three aims. 

Successive governments of both main parties have been guilty of handing out honours to their cronies, whether it be Harold Wilson’s notorious resignation Lavender List, which included a peerage to the man whose company made his raincoat, or Boris Johnson’s elevation of one of his more colourful associates, the son of a former member of the KGB, to become Lord Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia. 

Sir John Major, the former Conservative prime minister now seen as something of an elder statesman, must have regretted urging the country to embrace his Back to Basics campaign for old-fashioned family values when several of his ministers were found to be enthusiastically embracing women who were not their wives. 

Sunak’s relatively brief reign, however, seems to have failed miserably in delivering its promised aims. 

It started badly when he chose to make Suella Braverman home secretary despite the fact that she had previously had to resign for leaking sensitive government information, and any sense of the prime minister insisting on integrity, professionalism or accountability has been missing ever since. 

His reluctance to sack offenders has been excruciating to watch, governed by a desire to hold on to his MPs’ votes rather than precipitate a by-election. So it was in the most recent debacle, the honeytrap scandal in which William Wragg handed over the telephone numbers of some colleagues to potential blackmailers. 

Wragg, who held senior roles in the Conservative Party, had already fallen into the trap, sending insalubrious images of himself to the stranger who had contacted him online. 

Far from throwing him out of parliament for his conduct, which jeopardised the security of colleagues, the government seemed intent on keeping him. The chancellor even praised his “courageous” apology.

Even when Wragg dismissed himself from his deputy chairmanship of the Tory 1922 Committee and the chairmanship of the Public Administration Committee, the government did not strip him of the whip. Eventually, he did that himself, but a by-election has been avoided.

Maybe that counts as “professionalism” in Sunak’s world. He means what he means, not what you might have heard.

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