Merk argiewe: themselves

Don’t Tory MPs wonder why they are putting themselves through this? | Tom Peck

Don’t Tory MPs wonder why they are putting themselves through this? | Tom Peck
Johnson has reduced himself to no more than a mouth: a hole through which air is pushed

In order to believe that Boris Johnson is genuinely sorry for breaking his own Covid laws, you also have to believe his explanation for why he did so.

And that explanation is that he was unaware, when his wife, his interior designer, a birthday cake and several beers arrived in the cabinet room – and people began to sing “Happy Birthday” to him – that this could be described as “socialising indoors”, an activity he had made illegal a few weeks beforehand.

If you find that explanation implausible, then you have no choice but to believe that the prime minister has misled the House of Commons and must therefore resign.

As things stand, Johnson’s MPs, with a tiny number of exceptions, are choosing to believe what is impossible to believe. Which means that whenever they appear in public, or go on TV or the radio, they carry with them this belief that is impossible to justify and impossible to defend. And so they have no choice but to make complete fools of themselves, as several more have done in the last 24 ure.

Kay Burley interviewed a Tory MP called Paul Scully on Wednesday morning. The interview was a carbon copy of the interview the day before with Brandon Lewis, with both men seeking to claim that the prime minister is sorry, and that he’s paid the fine he was sent for breaking the law, without actually saying that he’s broken the law.

It is a laughable situation. It hardly needs pointing out that Burley herself broke lockdown rules at one point, after which her employers at Sky News took her off air for six months, having correctly calculated that she would hardly be in a position to interrogate politicians for breaking lockdown rules if they carried on as though nothing had happened. Which is precisely what the Conservative Party is now doing.

Nor does it need pointing out that Burley is not constitutionally obliged to uphold the ministerial code. And it definitely doesn’t need pointing out that the public have a right to expect higher standards from their prime minister than from the people who interview him from time to time. Their expectations are not being met.

Do Tory MPs wonder why they are putting themselves through this? Andrea Leadsom, byvoorbeeld, is not a bad person. Even if you can’t forgive her for Brexit, you’d have to be an impossibly harsh judge not to give her any credit for the very difficult work she has done on establishing improved systems for dealing with bullying and harassment at Westminster.

If you’d told Leadsom a year ago, perhaps merely a week ago, that she would soon be standing up in the House of Commons and calling no less a figure than the archbishop of Canterbury “abhorrent”, one imagines she would have been somewhat surprised. But this is where a life in the service of Boris Johnson will always lead you.

Archbishop Welby had the temerity to criticise the government’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, on the basis of no more than his generally being what you might describe as a Christian, so now Johnson’s Tories are after him.

He’s been criticised by Johnson himself for being more outspoken about Rwanda than about Russia, an argument so paper-thin that to describe it as sophistry would be flattering. Last night, after delivering another meaningless apology, the prime minister went to a private meeting with his MPs. Afterwards, one of his allies came out of the meeting and told waiting journalists what he had said.

Absurd conventions that would not be allowed in other countries, such as the US, mean that this ally’s name cannot be reported. But he told those listening that Johnson had castigated both the clergy and the BBC for criticising his Rwanda policy more than they had criticised Putin.

This criticism was dutifully reprinted on the front page of most of the newspapers, insluitend The Daily Telegraph. Tog, when Keir Starmer brought it up at Prime Minister’s Questions, Johnson went mad. How dare the Labour leader suggest that he had been critical of journalists? How dare he repeat what Johnson’s own colleague had deliberately told the newspapers to write? This is how the web of lies is woven.

When a writer at Die Atlantiese Oseaan spent a long time with Boris Johnson in order to write a profile of him, and its editors chose to headline it with the words “Boris Johnson Knows Exactly What He’s Doing,” this sort of thing is exactly what they had in mind.

Starmer’s attack line – broadly that no one believes a word Johnson says, and that his defence for breaking the law is absurd – is not going away or becoming any less effective. Twice, Johnson was reduced to referring to Starmer as “a Corbynista in an Islington suit”.

Starmer pointed out to him that he had kicked Jeremy Corbyn out of the party. Whatever an “Islington suit” is meant to be is absolutely anybody’s guess. Corbyn used to buy his suits in Islington. David Cameron famously told him to buy a proper one. Johnson lived in Islington for many years, in a house that he had to sell for £3.75m when his lawyer wife could tolerate him no longer.

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For most of the last decade – arguably even longer – Johnson’s critics have attacked him and attacked him and attacked him, then watched him win some highly unlikely electoral event by miles, but this time it really does feel different.

His only mode of attack is either baseless or meaningless. This week’s “Islington suit” is last month’s Jimmy Savile obscenity. It’s worked for him in the past, so he imagines it will work for him in the future, but he does not appear to have grasped the fact that everything has changed for him. The word the public most closely associate with him is “liar”. A baseless attack only works when launched from some kind of base itself.

Johnson has reduced himself to no more than a mouth: a hole through which air is pushed. Nothing he says matters. Everything he does forces those around him to shame themselves yet further, and it won’t go on for ever. Everything is too broken to be put back together again.