In the words of the great American commentator, Jonathan Rauch: “This is not about persuasion: This is about disorientation.” Rauch was referring to the political methods described in 2018 by Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon. “The Democrats don’t matter,” Bannon had said. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”
So stand by, this week, for plenty of disorientation (in Rauch’s words) and zone-flooding (in Bannon’s). The long-awaited publication of Sue Gray’s inquiry into the Downing Street parties – even in the significantly redacted form demanded by the Metropolitan Police – is still a moment of serious political vulnerability for Boris Johnson. Like a conjuror misdirecting his audience, the Great Bullingdonio will try to divert our attention to – well, to pretty much anything else.
To mark the second anniversary of the UK’s departure from the European Union, the prime minister will today unveil plans for a Brexit Freedoms Bill, to further “unleash the benefits of Brexit”, more easily amend or remove “outdated EU law”, and, allegedly, cut £1 billion of red tape.
On Wednesday, Michael Gove is expected to launch his Levelling Up White Paper, notionally the cornerstone of the Government’s domestic policy and, specifically, its political appeal for the continued support of Red Wall constituencies that broke with tradition to vote Tory in the 2019 general election.
Even before their publication, there are deep rumblings around Westminster and Whitehall about the substance of Gove’s plans, the extent to which he has been outmaneuvered by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and the alleged density of the white paper’s prose (for which Gove’s permanent secretary, Andy Haldane, on secondment from the Royal Society for Arts, is already being scapegoated).
Normally, such bickering would be a matter of profound concern for Johnson. In any rationally ordered political universe, the prospect of the prime minister’s blueprint for national regeneration being hailed as a dud would be horrendous. But we no longer inhabit a rationally ordered political universe. A senior Whitehall official told me last week that “a bloody big row over levelling up would suit Number 10 down to the ground right now. Anything but parties and cake, you know?”
Most egregiously, the PM has – without consulting anyone – appointed himself Captain of the Free West, Geopolitics and Scary Tanks for the Easter Term; all set to solve the Ukraine crisis with some stern language on the phone to President Putin and a visit to the region to set everyone straight. To show the Russians he means business, Johnson is also threatening to send Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, to Moscow in the next two weeks – though, given her barely concealed ambitions to replace him in Number 10, it is less clear that he actually wants her to come back.
In further evidence of political derangement, I have heard Tory MPs refer to Johnson’s Ukraine initiative (if it deserves that description) as his “Falklands moment.” Well, now: you can see what they are getting at, or trying to get at. Margaret Thatcher’s first term as prime minister was politically torrid before her triumph in the South Atlantic 40 years ago, which sealed her reputation as the Iron Lady – and set her on a trajectory to two more substantial election victories.
Yet the comparison disintegrates pathetically when subjected to the most basic inspection. For a start, Johnson is not sending the equivalent of a task force to fend off the 100,000 troops Putin has amassed on the Ukraine border (nor is anyone else, for that matter: on the BBC’s Sunday Morning yesterday, Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of Nato, was crystal clear that the alliance had “no plans” to deploy combat troops and was at pains to point out that Ukraine is a Nato “partner” rather than a full member – which was his way of saying that, if things get nasty, the Ukrainians may have to make do with “thoughts and prayers” rather than B-2 bombers from their friends in the West).
No: Johnson’s posturing owes much less to Thatcher than to Donald Trump. During his presidency, US strategy on the world stage was entirely and capriciously decided by personal whim and self-interest. In August 2017, Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury”; yet, by June 2018, he was fawning over Kim Jong-un like a long-lost brother and fellow strongman leader at the Singapore summit. The only consistent element in the sequence of events was that Trump did precisely what suited him best at each particular moment: hugging Kim close, but always retaining the option of bombing Pyongyang back into the Stone Age.
The stakes are scarcely so high in Johnson’s declared intention to don Churchill’s siren suit, talk tough and restore peace to Eastern Europe. But the symmetry with Trump is clear enough. Having had his birthday cake, and eaten it, the PM badly needs an all-singing, all-dancing, ocean-going Main Event to distract attention from the ignominy of the parties controversy.
Which is why UK foreign policy has suddenly become a wholly owned subsidiary of Building Boris Back Better Inc. It is all too reminiscent of the 1997 movie Wag the Dog, in which a politically beleaguered president recruits his most valued fixer, Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), to save him from a sex scandal. To which end, Brean stages an entirely fictitious conflict between the US and Albania. “It’s not a war,” he explains. “It’s a pageant.”
The trick, of course, is not to be fooled by the pageant. Johnson is not going to solve the crisis in Ukraine, any more than his Brexit bill is going to jump-start the UK economy, or his hopelessly nebulous levelling up programme is going to amount to much more than a bit of infrastructure, a lot of pork barrel politics and the heavens clouded over by dashed expectations.
That said, keeping one’s attention fixed on the signal rather than the noise is easier said than done. For a start, there is no shortage of Johnson allies assuring us that the investigation into the parties is, in fact, the noise, a comparatively trivial distraction from the serious business of government. “When Europe stands on the brink of war and with a cost of living crisis,” said Sir Edward Leigh, the MP for Gainsborough, last Tuesday, “can we please have a sense of proportion over the prime minister being given a piece of cake in his own office by his own staff?”
To which the answer is: the heart of the matter is not and has never been cake. It is whether Number 10 generally and the PM specifically abided by the same stringent Covid rules that were imposed upon the rest of us; and whether serious lies have been told about its breaches of lockdown regulations, including to Parliament. It is upon these questions that the focus should relentlessly and remorselessly be kept, however much Johnson and his colleagues tug on our sleeves and say: “But look at this much more important thing over here!”
The trouble is that, as politics has increasingly morphed into a branch of the entertainment industry, so it has been ever more subject to the tyranny of narrative. Which is to say that what matters more than establishing the facts, nailing the truth of the matter – let alone exposing abuses of power or travesties of justice – is discovering, with bated breath, what happens next. As what passes for government has become more and more of a spectacle and less and less the serious business of the public space, what we look out for is the next plotline; the next twist; the next cliffhanger.
Last week delivered these in spades. First, we learned on Tuesday that Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan police commissioner, had opened an investigation into the Downing Street festivities. Would this lead to further delay of Sue Gray’s internal Whitehall inquiry?
Apparently not – or so it seemed at first. Then, in a vintage end-of-episode curveball, it emerged on Friday that the Met had demanded that only “minimal reference” be made in Gray’s report to the eight events that are the subject of its inquiries – meaning that the document released this week, drained of all the most serious infractions, will necessarily be a much blander read.
All of which was spun by Johnson’s surrogates over the weekend as a fabulous break for the prime minister and almost certainly the moment when he gave his pesky antagonists the slip. Their argument ran as follows: the Gray report will now be toothless; Number 10 will be purged of all the wicked advisers who (mysteriously) are being blamed by the PM for not explaining to him exactly what “a party” is; the government will flood the zone with exciting initiatives and plans for world peace; and, by the time the Met delivers its findings, the voters will mostly have lost interest and be more exercised by energy prices, the cost of living and the impact of national insurance increases than by a few fixed penalty notices handed out to Downing Street staff (some of whom may already have left by then).
It is not hard to see why this prospect appeals to Johnson and his supporters – some of whom, only a week ago, wondered whether he would still be prime minister at the end of January. But the rest of us need not be seduced by this analysis; indeed, this is precisely the moment when a sense of perspective is most important.
Consider, for a start, the absurdity of a prime minister behaving as if the news that Number 10 is under investigation for criminal activity is a matter for celebration. It’s true that Johnson is a politician who never lets a crisis go to waste. But stick to the facts (unfashionable as it may be).
We already know, from Dame Cressida’s announcement last week, that the Met only looks into retrospective breaches in three categories of cases: when those involved knew, or ought to have known that they were breaking the law; “where not investigating would significantly undermine the legitimacy of the law”; or “where there was little ambiguity around the absence of any reasonable defence”.
By definition, the allegations against Number 10 – and what Sue Gray has already told the Met – meet one or all of those (very serious) criteria. True, the momentum for a vote of confidence by Conservative MPs in Johnson’s leadership may be waning. It seems increasingly unlikely that the 54 letters demanding such a ballot will be received by Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, in the near future.
But we should not delegate our assessment of Johnson and his team to Tory MPs, and, if they decide to back off, shrug our shoulders as though the matter is settled. That would be a pretty tawdry abdication of citizenship, not to mention of the collective responsibility of the media to hold power to account. If Downing Street held a series of unlawful social gatherings in 2020 and 2021, that remains a matter of the gravest significance – whether or not the Conservative parliamentary party can maintain some semblance of backbone and say as much.
As it happens, Tory MPs who think that Johnson’s survival is necessarily good news for the party’s prospects are kidding themselves. There is no precise precedent for what he is trying to do, but the closest parallel is John Major’s “put up or shut up” leadership contest in 1995.
In the hope of silencing his Eurosceptic tormentors, Major invited a challenge from the Right in a toe-to-toe contest. Michael Portillo, the strongest potential opponent, decided not to run, leaving the field clear for John Redwood – whom Major trounced by 218 votes to 89.
All sorted? Yes and no. Major’s leadership was safe for the rest of the parliament but his premiership was already doomed. In May 1997, Tony Blair destroyed the Conservative party in one of the most crushing victories in electoral history.
True, the Tories had already forfeited their all-important reputation for economic competence on Black Wednesday in 1992, when Britain was forced to withdraw the pound from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. And no such crisis has yet gripped Johnson’s government (which, unlike Major’s, also has a healthy Commons majority).
But his party’s poll lead on the economy is slipping – ominously so. Indeed, as the bill for Covid lands in countless ways, the government may find soon enough that it is facing millions of Black Wednesdays, each one different for each voter confronting, in different ways, the price of the pandemic.
Having behaved so badly, and squandered all public trust, Johnson would be very foolish indeed to imagine that he will not be blamed for absolutely everything that goes wrong between now and the next general election. As long as he is in Number 10, the voters will think the worst and assume the worst. That is a much greater threat to the Conservative brand than either Sue Gray’s report or even the Met investigation.
What has become quite clear is that this cohort of populist Tories have a very different definition of victory than their forebears. They do not think strategically, or with a view to the long term, or the next decade of public service reform.
They think solely about point-scoring, slogans, killer tweets, gotcha lines and the scoundrel’s escape from judgment. They will do or say literally anything to get points on the scoreboard: take, for instance, the supposed traditionalist, Jacob Rees-Mogg, announcing unilaterally on Newsnight last week that we now have “an essentially presidential system” in this country and that, were Johnson to be replaced as PM by a new Tory leader, a general election should be called – total constitutional nonsense.
Look at the brutality with which they have thrown the BBC, senior advisers and migrants under the bus in recent weeks: all in the service of saving Johnson, the self-styled “Big Dog”. This week, it is the turn of Brexit, Ukraine and levelling up to be pressed into service. The substance – such as it is – doesn’t matter.
All that matters to them is the relentless impression of irresistible victory: it is meant to resemble machine gun fire but it more often feels like an insistent gnat’s bite. They remind me of Phil, the clueless Tory adviser in The Thick of It, when Ollie, his Labour opposite number, throws coffee on his groin: “It’s a dark suit, and it’s only lukewarm! I still win!”
That’s exactly what Johnson and his gang are saying today: in spite of it all, we’re still winning. And because they have the great advantage of being absolutely shameless – genuinely puzzled in many cases that people who were unable to go to their relatives’ funerals during lockdown should be annoyed by their Downing Street revels – I dare say that they do think they are back on top.
Are they? This, in the end, is where it gets harder. For all that you hear in the days and weeks to come about a government “reset”, “lessons learned”, and a new leaf turned over, nothing about Johnson is going to change. Indeed, that is the whole point about this prime minister: he doesn’t change. His refusal to adapt or conform is – or, at least, has been – his unique selling point.
And – to return, once more, to the awkward facts – he has been handsomely rewarded for it: with two terms as London mayor, victory in the 2016 Brexit referendum, and a resounding electoral mandate in December 2019. Time and again, the voters have come through.
If you were him right now, what would you conclude? Wouldn’t you feel that, as bad as it all was, your track record was grounds for optimism? Wouldn’t you think that, in the end, you still had enough charm left in the tank to see you through even this? That’s the thing about the Boris Story. It was never about him. It was always, and still is, about us.