58. A Vacuum of Integrity

Peter Burke
Oxford For Europe

25 April 2021

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It gives no pleasure to witness integrity and professionalism being treated as an optional extra by those in power

‘It is sad to see the PM and his office fall so far below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves.’

Dominic Cummings

‘The level of toxicity and the disregard for the correct way of doing things is quite breathtaking’

Lord Kerslake, former head of civil service

‘If you are going to play the Dead Cat Strategy it is very important to be certain the cat actually is dead. This cat, Cummings, appears to be very much still alive.’

Peter Oborne

‘That’s just one illustration of the chaos that Mr Johnson seems to bring in his wake, and the reason for that is that he is a vacuum of integrity, and this has been apparent for a very long time, apparent to my colleagues who, I regret to say, … caused him to be elected as the leader of the Conservative Party. .. I think in the context of trying to ensure good governance, and people’s faith in democratic institutions, it’s really an extraordinary way in which to conduct oneself’.

Dominic Grieve

Close, Cohen and Scaramucci

You may perhaps remember the bathroom scene in the film Fatal Attraction (Yes, I know it has not aged well). Glenn Close appears to be drowned in the bath, Michael Douglas looks relieved, and suddenly she emerges wild eyed and holding a long sharp knife. Maybe it is a film our Prime Minister never saw. Maybe he did not follow the saga of the Trump regime. A succession of disgruntled departed senior minions, people like Anthony Scaramucci and Michael Cohen, came back to haunt Trump by making no holds barred revelations about what went on in his White House. And it was not a pretty sight, every bit as chaotic and corrupt as the Downing Street of 2021.

Be afraid, be very afraid

Following the events of the last few days, pundits are asking how Johnson could have been so naive as to make an unnecessary and unprovable allegation of leaking against a man like Dominic Cummings. Did he not stop for a moment to think that he himself had little to gain and that Cummings had little to lose by what would follow? Did he really believe that he was dealing here with some kind of herbivore? He most certainly found out to his cost that he was not, but then it is difficult to overestimate this Prime Minister’s naivete. He has proven this time and again.

Of course there are conspiracy theorists who would have you believe that actually all this is part of an elaborate plan, and that Cummings and Johnson are really working hand in glove all this time. I find this very hard to believe. Cummings may well have this level of sophistication but Johnson does not.

Indeed, a much more plausible explanation of Cummings’ behaviour is that put forward by the Sunday Times (distancing itself ever further from BJ) and by Carole Cadwalladr. The theory is that in fact Cummings has well-founded fears that the law will catch up with him over criminal offences committed by Vole Leave following the referendum, when it appears that he was complicit in deleting key evidence after the electoral commission launched an investigation. That is something which would be tantamount to perversion of the course of justice, and would be investigated by the National Crime Agency, as opposed to the Met, who clearly at the time chose to tread softly over the admitted electoral offences of the campaign. The implication is that he may help his case by showing he still has teeth.

That box was not full of sandwiches

So Cummings tells us he will speak out and ‘will answer questions about any of these issues to Parliament on 26 May for as long as the MPs want’. That will, of course, be a first, as at his last opportunity to address a Select Committee he refused to answer questions and walked out, in blatant contempt of Parliament. This is a contempt which has yet to be purged. The accusation of leaking may have been unfounded, but as Johnson will learn to his cost it is the kind of accusation which is prone to be self-fulfilling. Furthermore, Cummings knows where the bodies are buried. That box he carried out on his departure from 10 Downing Street was not, as we all know, full of sandwiches.

What’s in the box? Sandwiches?

Coming from Cummings, the statement that Johnson is unfit for office is simultaneously impactful and deeply ironic. It is true, even a stopped clock is right twice per day. It is not really news to those of us who have been following events closely, although some of Cummings’ other revelations are. When there is a clear conflict of evidence between these two significant figures, the world knows that one or both of them must be lying.

Given what we know about both men, I am not sure I believe Cummings’ virtue signalling when he says: ‘I refused to try to persuade the Cabinet Secretary to stop the inquiry and instead I encouraged the Cabinet Secretary to conduct the inquiry without any concern for political ramifications. I told the Cabinet Secretary that I would support him regardless of where the inquiry led. I warned some officials that the PM was thinking about cancelling the inquiry’.

And I find it even more difficult to believe that a Prime Minister who complained of being unable to survive financially without his £200,000 Daily Telegraph “salary”, would voluntarily shell out £58,000 for the refurbishment of a flat in which he must know his tenure may prove to be very short indeed.

There is every likelihood that these two men are lying against each other now, just as they lied with equal insouciance but in harmony when they led the Leave campaign. And remember that, along with Farage and Corbyn, these are two of the people without whose input Brexit absolutely would never have happened. To the many people who still believe that the country did not fall victim to a massive con trick, I can only say this: please please open your eyes.

How will that go down in Hartlepool?

All of this is happening within two weeks of what may prove to be very significant local elections, with even more potentially significant elections to the Scottish parliament and the psychologically important Hartlepool by-election. So not a time when the governing party wants to see its reputation dragged through the dirt. Many Tory MPs and activists must be seething, and yet, like the hapless Liz Truss on the Marr show today, they have to put on a show of unconditional loyalty. Just as they did, no doubt against their better judgement, a year ago, when they had to tell us implausibly that they believed Cummings had done not nothing wrong over the Barnard Castle affair. The same Cummings they are now being required to do all in the power to discredit. Irony of ironies.

Liz Truss looking uncomfortable while trying to defend her boss

At this sensitive time it is extraordinary that the Tories still appear to have a 10 point lead in the opinion polls over Labour, and that only 40% of the electorate believe they are untrustworthy. When the contents of that cardboard box emerge, I wonder if that will change.

Tory MPs, except perhaps those who are deaf and blind, must know that they have chosen an inept leader. They prioritise the fact that he was seen to have “star quality”. The question for them now is whether that is gone. One straw in the wind is that after quite a long time of being supine and not daring to challenge Johnson, the BBC in its news and current affairs coverage is starting to be more outspoken. Do they feel he is on the way out?

Schadenfreude? Frankly it gives no pleasure whatever to watch those at the centre of power tearing each other apart. After all, this is the only government this country has, and very possibly the only one will have several years to come. We might well wish them to do a good job but sadly this will remain a matter of hope rather than expectation.

Please also keep an eye out for our regular series of meetings featuring brilliant speakers. Dominic Grieve is just one of the many we have hosted in the past. Details here.

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