Yes, it’s a real scandal. Despite the apparent absurdity of a Westminster village obsessing over soft furnishings and the precise class connotations of the John Lewis brand, there is a hard offence underneath all those cushions and throws. By refusing to tell us who first paid for the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat, Boris Johnson is denying us – his boss – the right to know who he owes and what hold they might have on him.
Jonathan Freedland www.theguardian.com
Offence is the right word because, even before the Electoral Commission determines whether the law on political funding was broken, Johnson’s failure to come clean may well be, by itself, a breach of the ministerial code. That bars not only actual conflicts of interest between ministers’ “public duties and their private interests” but even the perception of such conflicts. In refusing to tell us who first paid that bill for overpriced wallpaper, or to give full details of who paid for his December 2019 holiday in Mustique, Johnson has offended the public trust.
So yes, this is a scandal. But do you know what else is a scandal? That while Johnson was racking up an estimated £200,000 on home decor, his government was pushing through a post-Grenfell fire safety bill that threatens ordinary leaseholders with financial ruin, saddling them with the cost of ridding their homes of potentially lethal cladding and other hazards: one woman is facing a bill of £70,000 to make her one-bedroom flat in Bristol safe. That is a scandal.
Or that by breaking his 2019 manifesto pledge and slashing the UK’s aid budget, Johnson has cut our contribution to the UN effort on HIV/Aids and to lifesaving water projects by 80%, and to the UN family planning programme by even more – money that could have prevented maternal and child deaths in the world’s poorest countries. That, too, is a scandal.
A coronavirus death toll of 127,500 that remains the highest in Europe, alongside the deepest economic slump in the G7. The mistake Johnson made three times over in 2020, delaying lockdowns in March, September and the following winter. The seeding of Covid in nursing homes. The decision to keep the borders open even during the height of lockdown, as smart as putting a double bolt and extra chain on the front door while leaving the back door swinging wide open. Johnson’s absence from the first five Cobra meetings on Covid, preferring to flick through swatches at his weekend home at Chequers. They’re all scandals.
The VIP lane for ministers’ pals when the PPE contracts were being doled out, when so many politicians’ chums looked at Covid and saw a commercial opportunity. The £276m contract that went to P14 Medical, run by a Tory donor, or the £160m deal with Meller Designs, also run by a Tory donor, both revealed just this week. The staggering sum of £37bn committed to a test-and-trace programme that never really worked. Johnson’s support for Dominic Cummings, even as he torched the most important public health policy in a century and insulted the country’s intelligence with a tall story about an eye test on wheels. Every one a scandal.
The failure to sack Robert Jenrick, even after he rushed through an “unlawful” planning decision that would save Richard Desmond, yet another Tory donor, £45m in local taxes. The failure to sack Priti Patel, even after she’d been found to have broken the ministerial code. The failure to sack Gavin Williamson, even after he’d presided over an exams fiasco that threatened to damage the life chances of tens of thousands of young people. The appointment of Gavin Williamson, not two months after he’d been fired by Theresa May for leaking sensitive information from the national security council. That, too, is a scandal.
Johnson’s Brexit protocol that put a border down the Irish sea, even after he’d vowed never to put a border down the Irish sea, thereby imperilling a union he swore blind he would protect. His proposal of an internal market bill that proudly declared its intention to break international law, prompting the UK’s top legal civil servant to quit – one of a disturbing number of mandarins driven to resignation on Johnson’s watch.
His illegal suspension of parliament, overturned as a violation of fundamental democratic practice by unanimous verdict of the supreme court. The lies that led to that moment: the £350m on the side of the bus or the scare story that Turkey was poised to join the EU and that Britain would be powerless to stop it. Siding with Vladimir Putin to suggest that the EU had provoked the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Scandals, all.
The blame he bears for wrongly saying, when foreign secretary, that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been training journalists in Iran, further condemning a woman who this week was sentenced to yet another year as a prisoner in that country. His quip about clearing away “dead bodies” in Sirte, Libya, a phrase that makes all too plausible the multiply-sourced claim that he told a Downing Street meeting on Covid he was happy to let the virus rip and “let the bodies pile high” rather than impose another lockdown.
His record as mayor, spaffing Londoners’ money up the wall on failed vanity projects that were either unused or unworkable, yet somehow managing to boost the entrepreneurial efforts of his lover, Jennifer Arcuri, cosy in her very own VIP lane with Johnson as the recipient of £126,000 in public money. That, too, is a scandal.
His racist musings about a “half-Kenyan” Barack Obama, his casting of Muslim women as “bank robbers” and “letterboxes”, and Africans as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”. His running of a Spectator editorial that falsely accused “drunken fans” of causing the Hillsborough calamity, and suggesting that the people of Liverpool wallow in “vicarious victimhood”. His firings from the Tory frontbench and the Times newspaper, both times for lying.
They’re all scandals. So is a system that makes the prime minister the ultimate arbiter of the very code that he has broken, so that Johnson decides when and whether to investigate himself, making him judge and jury in his own case. Not much better is an opposition party that was walloped by him in 2019 and struggles to lay a glove on him now.
Or maybe the real scandal lies with us, the electorate, still seduced by a tousled-hair rebel shtick and faux bonhomie that should have palled years ago. Americans got rid of their lying, self-serving, scandal-plagued charlatan 100 days ago. They did it at the first possible opportunity. Next week, polls suggest we’re poised to give ours a partial thumbs-up at the ballot box. For allowing this shameless man to keep riding high, some of the shame is on us.
- Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist