Quizzes, parties and crashing polls

Published by The i paper (29th November, 2021)

If Boris Johnson hosts another Christmas quiz, here is a possible question: who was the prominent Conservative who saw clearly and quickly the realities of virus controls? The answer is Rory Stewart, one of the contestants he defeated for the Tory leadership, who warned ministers their “half-hearted” initial response last year was only delaying the inevitable introduction of stricter measures more than a fortnight before the prevaricating Prime Minister finally introduced lockdown. Yet this quirky politician – a man of genuine achievement, substance and independent thought with grounded insights into the world – was forced out of the party by the Brexit gang after they seized control.

Stewart might have been able to assist a smoother exit from Afghanistan had he stayed in the Cabinet, given his expertise on the country, rather than the shambles that took place while senior ministers and officials stayed on their holiday sunbeds. Instead he was shouting from the sidelines. So even if Johnson ended up being felled by serial deceptions over Downing Street parties and wallpaper, Stewart will not be among the contenders again for the leadership. And this loss of a smart player with unusual appeal symbolises the party’s problems as it confronts another round of chaos and moral corruption under its current leader.

This latest scandal goes far beyond Boris Johnson. Yes, this self-serving huckster is responsible for the disgraceful environment in Downing Street, which allowed his team to display such disgusting contempt for the electorate as they flouted their own regulations. While businesses crumbled, the care system collapsed, families were divided, medics slogged away and patients were dying, the people in charge of the country were laughing about lying to the public, holding festive quizzes and quaffing champagne at illicit parties. “People claiming they were having a business meeting when they were breaking the rules was an in-joke in that building for months,” one aide told a Sunday paper. “I heard it time and again.”

No wonder the Tories have crashed in the polls given such sordid duplicity, not least when Labour seems to be getting its act together with a credible top team. Johnson can rage all he likes against the BBC for its reporting on “Partygate” – calling its coverage “frivolous, vengeful and partisan” – but this issue encapsulates all that is wrong with his leadership. It exposes shameless arrogance, shocking deceit and sheer bloody incompetence. It is not the BBC’s fault that the need for booster jabs and debate on fresh restrictions is being clouded by the furore. And forget all that talk of need for a new team of advisers. The rot starts at the top. It is the Prime Minister himself who is directly responsible for demolishing any sense of national solidarity at this time of renewed crisis.

It would be fitting if this shallowest of politicians – a man so self-deluded that he seriously thinks he is the second coming of Sir Winston Churchill – was brought down by something as silly as some seasonal festivities. A few letters have gone in already to the chairman of the 1922 Committee seeking a no-confidence vote – and if the Conservatives were to lose the North Shropshire by-election this week, more would surely follow, with 54 needed to trigger the ballot.

Bear in mind this by-election in a Tory and Brexit stronghold is yet another reminder of Johnson’s character, a legacy of his attempt to railroad the parliamentary party into covering up sleaze. Let us hope voters in the constituency, regardless of their politics, do their patriotic duty and support the Liberal Democrat challenger in response to these tawdry events.

It is more likely, sadly, that Johnson will stumble though to the next election. Yet the longer he stays, the more corrosion he causes the Tory brand. The party made a Faustian pact to put him in power in return for Brexit and his supposed electoral appeal, yet such diabolical bargains are inevitably self-defeating. They sold their soul to a man of dubious morality, a shallow egotist who believes in nothing beyond himself and is so obviously ill-suited to running the country. In doing so they drove out moderates such as Stewart, David Gauke and Dominic Grieve while banishing other sensible folk such as Jeremy Hunt, Tobias Ellwood and Tom Tugendhat to the sidelines, despite the glaring need for more ballast in a lightweight cabinet.

Now Johnson reflects his remoulded party. Think of all those fanatical Brexiteers, transformed into libertarian lockdown sceptics who thwarted the introduction of vaccine passports last summer and rebel over new pandemic measures, yet seem oblivious to pressing societal concerns such as the collapsing care system.

It is stunning that the Conservatives so casually jettisoned any reputation for responsible government, fiscal prudence or sensible diplomacy under a spendthrift leader who has become an international laughing stock, while seeming intent on sacrificing their bedrock of southern voters. As one possible leadership contender said to me, who knows what the party stands for now? “We seem like some strange cross between Clement Attlee’s socialism and a bunch of nationalists.”

There is fury over Johnson’s selfish behaviour and froth over possible succession. Yet the party faces more far fundamental questions than whether Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss or even (stop laughing) Matt Hancock should be next leader. It should reflect how it ended up in this mess, plummeting in the polls and further demolishing the electorate’s faith in Westminster – and then pull back from sliding down the slippery path to populism.

There is, after all, nothing remotely surprising about their leader’s dodgy conduct, given that he was sacked from a newspaper for fabricating quotes and dismissed from the shadow cabinet for lying over an extra-marital affair. This man built his career on artifice, bombast and contempt for rules. So what does it say about the Tory party that it put this chancer into Downing Street?

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