On a disgraceful day that dragged the British Tory government deeper into the seemingly bottomless mire, Boris Johnson’s insinuation at the despatch box that Labour leader Keir Starmer had failed to prosecute serial sex offender Jimmy Savile during his time as director of public prosecutions struck a note so discordant even his own MPs were taken aback.
Everyone knows wounded animals are dangerous and Johnson, faced with civil servant Sue Gray’s withering report about his failure of leadership and with the police investigating a slew of parties at Downing Street, lashed out on Monday like one with little left to lose.
As Johnson roared that Starmer as director of public prosecutions “spent most of his time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile”, his deputy Dominic Raab looked on like a man wondering how on earth he could put the pin back in this mop-haired grenade.
But whatever the feelings he could not hide from his face, Raab was wheeled out on Tuesday to, once again, have a go at defending the indefensible, telling the BBC that Johnson’s claim was part of the “cut and thrust of parliamentary debates and exchanges”. But he did not repeat the remark himself, and added: “I don’t have the facts to justify that.”
The speaker of the house, Lindsay Hoyle, criticised Johnson, saying: “I am far from satisfied that the comments in question were appropriate on this occasion” and adding that while the accusation did not breach parliamentary rules, “such allegations should not be made lightly”.
In the House of Commons, Starmer received Johnson’s rant with a face of stone but on Tuesday, he described the allegation as “a ridiculous slur peddled by right-wing trolls”, saying it disgusted even Johnson’s own MPs.
“They knew that he was going so low with that slur, with that lie – he’d been advised not to do it because it’s obviously not true but he does it because he doesn’t understand what honesty and integrity means. When I was director of public prosecutions, I was superintended by a Conservative Attorney General, so it is as ridiculous as it gets,” Starmer told Sky News.
“Instead of acting with the contrition and the integrity he should have shown, (Johnson) does what he always does which is try to drag everyone into the gutter with him and the one thing we know about this prime minister, everyone who’s ever come into contact with him always gets damaged in the process,” he said.
Starmer was head of the Crown Prosecution Service in 2009 when the decision was made not to prosecute Savile on the grounds of “insufficient evidence” but he was not the reviewing lawyer for the case. The fact-checking charity Full Fact said: “The allegations against Savile were dealt with by local police and a reviewing lawyer for the CPS. A later investigation criticised the actions of both the CPS and the police in their handling of the situation. It did not suggest that Mr Starmer was personally involved in the decisions made.”
Since Savile’s death in 2011, it has emerged that he sexually abused hundreds of children and women at locations including hospitals, schools and the BBC.
Condemnation of Johnson’s new leap into the gutter was swift and cross-party. Julian Smith, the Conservative former chief whip and former Northern Ireland secretary, tweeted: “The smear made against Keir Starmer relating to Jimmy Savile yesterday is wrong & cannot be defended. It should be withdrawn. False and baseless personal slurs are dangerous, corrode trust & can’t just be accepted as part of the cut & thrust of parliamentary debate.”
Ironically, Johnson’s Savile claim came during a parliamentary session dominated by calls for Johnson to resign because he had … misled parliament and the country. Lied about respecting coronavirus rules, lied about parties, lied about his presence at the parties, lied about what he knew and when he knew it. How fitting that the dead cat on the table this time was so in character.
In the same session, SNP leader Ian Blackford left the chamber after he refused to withdraw his claim that Johnson had misled MPs (he was about to be kicked out by the Speaker). Blackford said he didn’t withdraw his claim because he did not want to stoop to Johnson’s level.
Parliamentary convention states that one is not supposed to call another MP a liar in the House of Commons but in view of everything that has been said in the hallowed chamber over the last few months of #Partygate, this seems like a quaint tradition from simpler times. A bit like prime ministerial dignity, or integrity, or gravitas.
As fury over Johnson’s remarks continued to reverberate on Tuesday, the man of the moment skipped town, heading to Ukraine where the 100,000 Russian troops amassed on the border must have seemed a safer option, all things considered.
Johnson clearly hopes to play the role of statesman for a while but even foreign affairs aren’t immune from the sordid contamination of Partygate. On Monday, Johnson had to cancel a call with Russian leader Vladimir Putin on how to avoid a catastrophic war on Europe’s borders because he had to go to the House of Commons to talk about cheese and wine and parties. Again.
Speaker Lindsay Hoyle perhaps spoke for the nation as he criticised Johnson’s comments on Tuesday: “I want a nicer parliament, and the only way we can get a nicer parliament is being more honourable in the debates that we have. Let us show each other respect as well as tolerance going forward.”
One wonders if these words will carry all the way to Kyiv.