Are there no tactics to which a disgraced and unpopular prime minister will not sink in his desperate attempt to cling on against the odds? For Boris Johnson, it would seem not. In the last week, there have been further revelations about the underhand tactics his whips have deployed to keep MPs loyal: threats of placing hostile stories about their private lives in the press or of withdrawing planned funding to the detriment of their constituents. Meanwhile, the government has pushed out story after story to try to distract from critical headlines; policymaking has become no more than an instrument to try to save Johnson’s skin, regardless of the consequences.
Just over a decade ago, the parliamentary expenses scandal exposed the gulf between what MPs thought was acceptable and what the public was willing to accept. Too many parliamentarians saw the manipulation of expenses loopholes as compensation for their public office; voters saw it as greed and corruption. The row that has erupted over the parliamentary whipping exposes a similar dynamic. Allies of the prime minister and Westminster stalwarts argue putting pressure on MPs to express support or vote with the government is just part of the rough and tumble of politics. But voters quite rightly do not expect a government to extract loyalty from its backbenchers by threatening constituency funding or warning that if they rebel there will be nasty stories in the press.
Christian Wakeford, the Conservative MP for Bury South who defected to Labour last week, claimed he was threatened with the withdrawal of funding for a new school in his constituency if he did not vote with the government against summer holiday meals for pupils from low-income families. The Conservative backbencher William Wragg has revealed that colleagues have come to him reporting that the whips had attempted to blackmail them into continuing to support Johnson; he will be meeting the Metropolitan police to discuss these allegations. Chris Bryant, the Labour chair of the Commons standards committee, says he has heard MPs alleging that Johnson himself has been involved in this blackmail. At best, this is political corruption, at worst, criminal conduct. There urgently needs to be an independent inquiry into these allegations. But such an endeavour is vanishingly unlikely from a government whose main focus at the moment is avoiding accountability for the culture of boozy parties that has ended up with the prime minister himself being accused of breaking lockdown laws and of misleading parliament.
Everything Johnson and his government are now doing is driven by panic and narrow political interests. Nothing is sacred, everything is fair game. The distraction techniques over the last week, dubbed by his allies as “Operation Red Meat”, have involved the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, launching a politically motivated attack on the BBC, unilaterally announcing a two-year funding freeze and implying that the licence fee would be abolished altogether in 2027, from which she later rowed back.
The BBC is a vital national institution that has already made significant cutbacks; it cannot afford a funding cut. The home secretary, Priti Patel, has announced that the armed forces would take charge of operations to limit the number of asylum seekers trying to cross the Channel, in a move the defence select committee chair has described as “rushed” and a massive distraction for the armed forces. Yet another country – this time Ghana – has been forced to call out the government’s false claims that it is in talks with it to process migrants offshore, a move that would anyway probably contradict international law. Meanwhile, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, aimed for the front pages with his announcement he would be clamping down on excess train announcements, to the bewilderment of people affected by far more pressing transport issues across the country.
The longer this corrupt and hypocritical government limps on, the greater the risk it does long-term damage to public trust in the institutions of democracy. How can citizens trust a government to act in their interest while it wheels out ludicrous announcements that serve no purpose other than attempting to bolster a prime minister mired in crisis after crisis?
Nowhere is this true more than with Covid. During an ongoing national emergency, it is critical the public trusts the government to take decisions for the right reasons, based on evidence rather than its desire to capture the news cycle. It is extremely good news that Omicron infection rates are falling. But is the government dropping plan B measures – including the compulsory wearing of masks – this week because the data indicates this is appropriate or for the purposes of generating a feelgood news story? The cynicism Johnson is embedding in the electorate will not evaporate with the end of his premiership.
Johnson may last another month; he may last another year. But he is prime minister of this country in name alone: despite winning a large majority just two years ago, his authority has leached away entirely as a result of his incompetence and lack of integrity. The longer the Conservative party props him up, the more he undermines the notion of standards in public life.