Tory backbenchers can no longer ignore that a liar is sitting at the heart of government

The most pithy comment so far – Owl

It’s all falling apart for them. You can see it in the faces of the Conservative parliamentary party, as they sullenly watch Boris Johnson defend himself over Partygate. You can see it on the empty benches, as they scurry from the Chamber rather than defend the indefensible. The Government has entered a period of sustained decay. It is a moral decay. But it is also an electoral decay.

Ian Dunt inews 1 day ago

If those MPs were honest with themselves, they would have found a reassuring truth in the Chamber today: the Conservative party’s interest and the national interest are perfectly aligned. The Prime Minister must be removed from office. He is a threat to their election prospects and his continued presence in Downing Street degrades the basic legitimacy of British governance.

Sue Gray’s report was finally published today, after months of waiting. It confirmed, in forensic detail, the stories we’ve seen emerging from journalists since Partygate broke. Late night parties in No 10 and the Cabinet Office during lockdown. Vomiting, fights, karaoke sessions, red wine spilled all over the walls, broken children’s swings in the Downing Street Garden. Security and cleaning staff treated with sneering disdain by staff.

They knew what they were doing and what people would think about it. “A 200 odd person invitation for drinks in the garden of No 10 is somewhat of a comms risk in the current environment,” Lee Cain, No 10 director of communications, emailed his colleagues on 20 May 2020. After the party, Martin Reynolds, the Prime Minister’s principal private secretary, was pleased to have escaped any media scrutiny. “A complete non story,” he said, referring to some other issue, “but better than them focusing on our drinks (which we seem to have got away with)”.

A culture had taken root in Downing Street. It was one of boozing and misbehaviour, sure. But far more importantly, it was a culture of lawbreaking. A kind of feudal court, in which the rules which apply to others do not apply to the leadership caste.

Cultures like that come from the top. But when Johnson arrived in the Commons an hour later, he told a different story. It was lawyered to within an inch of its life. It sounded like a defence barrister casting doubt in the jury’s mind about whether the defendant was close to the scene of the crime.

No 10 is a big building, he said. 500,300 metres square over five floors, excluding the flats. He’d attended the birthday party in the Cabinet room and been fined. But the other events were leaving parties for members of staff, which he only popped in on. “I briefly attended such gatherings to thank them for their service, which I believe is one of the essential duties of leadership.”

He’d had nothing to do with the late evening debauchery that followed and wasn’t even aware it happened. “I have been as surprised and disappointed as anyone else in this House,” he said. “I have been appalled by some of the behaviour.”

By some miraculous turn of events, he had not heard these parties as they happened, despite the report stating that during one gathering: “people working elsewhere in the No 10 building that evening heard significant levels of noise”. He had not been informed they happened, despite repeated communication about them from senior members of his staff. And he had not realised they were against the rules, despite the people around him clearly joking about it in written communication.

And anyway, reforms had now been put in place. The No 10 operation was being rejigged. “The entire senior management has changed,” he said proudly. Everyone, that is, except him.

This was operation “Save Big Dog” – reportedly the name he himself gave the rescue operation for his career. First, he denied the parties ever happened. Then he lied about it. Then he insisted he could not talk about it because of the Gray report. And then finally, once it was published, he was prepared to speak about it only for as long as it took him to misrepresent it. After that, as he said at the close of his statement, it was time to “move on”.

A few Tory MPs dutifully got up to lip-sync No 10’s position. Most trooped out in the early stages of the debate. There were just a few brave souls on the government benches prepared to grapple with reality.

Bournemouth East MP Tobias Ellwood spoke directly to his colleagues. “Are you willing, day in and day out, to defend this behaviour publicly? Can we win the general election on this current trajectory?” He was breaking the omerta. He was refusing to go along with the conspiracy of silence and inaction. So they tried to shout him down. “I’m being heckled by my own people,” he said desperately.

They should have listened carefully, because amid a spectacle of lies here was one man who was prepared to speak the truth. Johnson’s excuses were literally unbelievable. He would sacrifice anyone for his own advancement. He was bringing his office into disrepute and disgracing the party he leads. But it is not a truth the Tory party is prepared to hear.

Instead, they go grimly on. A zombie party, knowing what has happened is intolerable, and yet unable to admit it or act upon it. Every day they fail to do so, they take Johnson’s moral culpability and slather it on themselves.