This article was submitted to us by The Honest Liberal, having read it, I was forced to consider the importance of realpolitik when contrasted with, what I believe to be, a deeply held conservtive principle of loyalty to one's own friends and acquaintances. Doubtless Honest Liberal is correct in that we could indeed be facing a winter of discontent of sorts. It seems very likely, as has been shown in recent polls, that public opinion, off the back of 18 months of lockdowns and all the other associated u-turns, fumbles, scandals and so on, is unlikely to bear further indications of a rot at the heart of government. That said I can't help but question whether we want to emulate the likes of Tony Blair, shrewd in his actions though he may have been. We'd love to hear your opinion on the challenge of balancing loyalty to one's friends and political expediency, which is more valuable to you and what do you respect more? Should the media be ignored? Can it be ignored?
Much has been written previously about Boris Johnson expressing his wish as a child to become ‘world king’, but the recent Owen Paterson affair seems to show that he did not quite understand the responsibility that such power entails. Showing leadership and taking difficult decisions, especially where friends are involved, is not as easy as Tony Blair used to make it look, when our current Prime Minister was editing magazines and writing for newspapers.
In the case of Owen Paterson it seemed to me a huge blunder to put up a fight. Of course all of the sadness surrounding his wife’s suicide is heartbreaking. But in his conduct, he was benefiting a company who paid him a large sum of money, and so even if he was benefiting the public, he did break the rules by using his position as an MP to do so. He should have accepted that, and graciously accepted his suspension too. In his constituency he would have been quite sure to win the by-election that would have followed. Only after that should the rules of the Standards committee be changed, as there do seem to have been problems with the investigation - though of course the process must remain independent at one level and cross-party at the next.
The PM should have followed the example of one of his predecessors, Tony Blair, in seeing the bigger picture; that reputational damage lasts, and accumulates through successive scandals. Over time reputation solidifies in the mind’s of the electorate. Losing one friend to a suspension is far less damaging than all the newspaper headlines that the government, the PM, the Chief Whip, the Leader of the House of Commons and all Tory MPs have suffered as a result (even those that voted against Andrea Leadsom’s amendment).
Instead of facing down the Standards Committee and the Commissioner’s recommendations, the PM should have reflected on Blair’s sacking of Peter Mandelson in 2001. Impropriety was alleged against Mr Mandelson, and the PM then launched an inquiry, but even before the inquirer reported, Mr Blair sacked Mandelson, to limit the political damage. Mandelson was exonerated by an independent inquiry by Sir Anthony Hammond, which concluded that neither Mandelson nor anyone else had acted improperly.
As a close ally to the PM it would have looked awful if it seemed to the public that the PM had saved him from his fate, and not followed the rules to the letter - which is exactly what Mr Johnson has done. The inquiry later found in Mr Mandelson’s favour, but the point is not only that justice is done, it must also be seen to be done. The incident gave the impression that the PM was quite prepared to ruthlessly sack his friends if it was believed that they had behaved improperly. Sacking people in this way can, if handled poorly, create enemies of the sacked and please the opposition. On the other hand it kills the story, and makes the government look decisive and restores its reputation.
Unfortunately Boris Johnson’s approach has been that patronage buys loyalty and vice versa. Through his ministers’ and other political allies' various scandals, he has stood by them against all comers, provided that they are loyal to him. There have been many examples of this.
Priti Patel was accused of constructive dismissal by her Permanent Secretary who resigned and made a rare speech when he did so. In addition she was found to have broken the ministerial code by a Cabinet Office inquiry. The PM rejected that finding and his chief advisor on the ministerial code (Alex Allan) resigned.
Matt Hancock was filmed kissing one of his non-executive directors, whom he appointed to the job in March 2020, all whilst COVID restrictions were in place and Mr Hancock was regularly reminding the public to comply with those rules. No10 had said that they considered the matter closed on the 25th June this year. Despite this Mr Hancock resigned the next day.
In addition to these two, the Dominic Cummings/Barnard Castle Trip, Gavin Williamson’s A Level fiasco, and Dominic Raab’s holiday and general failure related to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, did not lead to a single sacking by the PM. Mr Williamson was removed from government altogether in a reshuffle a whole year after his scandal, and Mr Raab has been demoted to Justice Secretary but remains Deputy Prime Minister.
It is thoughtless and arrogant - this is the overconfidence we suffer with a weak Opposition.
Having had no serious opponents in the last eleven years of government Spads in No10 know they are safe. They don't feel the heat of an opposition who are scratching at the door of No10, or ripping them to shreds at the despatch box. Boris Johnson knows he can bluster through at PMQs and send some sensible minister on the Marr programme on Sunday to weather each storm. But these things build up overtime, they are building the foundations of their own defeat, brick by brick.
Strong opposition is key, for the nation, to challenge and refine government policies, to force the government to be better, to deliver a better service to the country. Keir Starmer needs to have a great communications team at his side, providing attack lines in a serious theme that are both true and easily understood. ‘One rule for them and one rule for the rest of us’ as a theme is beginning to solidify in the minds of the public. The Conservative Party should be terrified of opposition, but have forgotten how appallingly emasculating it is, having had more than a decade in power.
The judgement of No10 on the Owen Paterson case has been appalling, shortsighted, and so separate from the views of voters. The aim was to get away with it, which is a poor aim in itself, but it has not worked.
COVID-19, the usual crisis in the NHS, rising gas prices and the end of the Universal Credit uplift will all accumulate to make this winter a difficult one for the government - the Prime Minister does not need additional scandals to fight back against. This might be Mr Johnson’s winter of discontent if he does not rethink his tactics on backing his MPs no matter what, and carries on trying to get away with it.