Given the sheer volume of scandals emanating from Downing Street – Partygate being only the latest – the prime minister is fortunate in having someone ready to rush to a keyboard or broadcast studio to deploy immediate assistance to their stricken chief.
Sean O’Grady www.independent.co.uk
The prime minister is a little less fortunate in that the first figure on the scene is usually the elaborately syruped figure of Michael Fabricant MP.
Fabricant has been around Westminster for some many years. He was first elected in 1992 to represent Mid-Staffordshire and later the city of Lichfield, his luxuriant hairstyle often echoing the magnificent unchanging frontage of the medieval cathedral.
This does not detract from the substance of his words – which are not always helpful to Boris Johnson. In the recent row about Nusrat Ghani’s sacking and Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, for example, he declared to LBC: “She’s hardly someone who’s obviously a Muslim.” He argued that Ghani’s accusation of Islamophobia is a “lame excuse” for her sacking as it’s “not apparent” she is Muslim. Cue a warranted backlash. He tries to be helpful, with mixed results.
In the case of “Birthday Partygate”, Fabricant was slower to get to Twitter than usual, but with a novel, albeit riskier, take: “I am pleased that @metpoliceuk are now involved along with Sue Gray of the Cabinet Office investigating so-called ‘Party-Gate’. Rather better to have a professional investigation than trial by social and mainstream media!”
Only a little behind Fabricant in the rush to a microphone when the chocolate birthday cake hits the mainstream media fan is Peter Bone, now a BBC Newsnight favourite (even though he wants to defund the BBC). When all other lines of defence collapse in his dogged trench warfare campaign, he retreats to the unchallengeable salient of his own seat. He declares that allegations of law-breaking in Downing Street (or whatever) are of little interest to his Wellingborough constituents, who prefer to kick off about Ukraine when they see him on their doorstep. Maybe Abkhazia will be the next big talking point across the East Midlands.
Quick as Fabricant and Bone are, though, the most loyal of the loyal in Johnson’s Praetorian Guard is Nadine Dorries. It was she who sacrificed what remained of her reputation by appearing in the Commons to de-announce the abolition of the BBC licence fee and admit that the government hasn’t in any case got any idea of what to replace it with. Birthday Partygate brought a typically robust response, and one that displayed a commendable disregard for public sensitivities about bereavements and the like during lockdown. As usual, Twitter was the channel of choice: “So, when people in an office buy a cake in the middle of the afternoon for someone else they are working in the office with and stop for ten minutes to sing happy birthday and then go back to their desks, this is now called a party?”
This drew some harsh responses, including from the fine satirist Rosie Holt: “So, when 12 people vote in the middle of the jungle for someone else they are living in the jungle with to eat an ostrich’s anus and stop representing their citizens for three weeks and then go back to their constituency, this is now called the culture secretary?”
Other members of the guard also overstate their case to comical effect, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg emerging from the last cabinet meeting (when the Metropolitan Police investigation wasn’t mentioned, let alone discussed), and telling reporters that the government is going “from strength to strength”. I could detect just a hint of desperation through the Etonian drawl.
Other cabinet colleagues – Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss – have tended to keep a lower profile, probably having better career prospects than Rees-Mogg, Dorries and indeed Priti Patel in the event of regime change.
The Academy Award for improvised but effective defence of the indefensible must go to Gavin Shapps. He prefers guerrilla warfare through the rubble of the prime minister’s standing in the polls to the formalities of logical debate. Though no stranger to gaffes himself, Shapps possesses a preternatural ability to fumble and scrabble his way through even the most pressing of forensic examinations, darting between irrelevant observations and twisted facts to dodge the bullets.
It is always a simple matter of surviving the next quarter of an hour in a studio, and Shapps knows it. Up against sharply focused questioning by Justin Webb on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and on all the morning broadcast round, somehow Shapps made it through the ordeal without ever referring to the truth.
It was strongly reminiscent of his slaloming defences of Dominic Cummings during the height of the Barnard Castle affair in 2020 (plenty of irony there). None of these encounters do anything for Shapps’ personal reputation but goodness, what staying power! Like Dorries or Rees-Mogg, he sounds absurd, but manages not to combine it with being offensive or sounding arrogant – a rare skill. A man with such vast reserves of stamina used to such futile purpose must surely be an asset to any prime minister. Regime change holds no terror for him.