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Sue Gray report: If Boris Johnson survives, it will only get worse for Britain

Britain will become a country where the normal rules of decent conduct don’t apply, and where a prime minister can mislead his colleagues with impunity
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the Tilbury Docks in Tilbury on 31 January 2022 (AFP)

Today's British newspapers are filled with yet more damning information about Boris Johnson and his Covid-19 lockdown parties. 

Police are investigating 12 alleged Downing Street or Whitehall events. One of them took place in the prime minister’s Downing Street flat (a claim which has been described by the prime minister’s wife Carrie as "totally untrue").

This story is no longer about Boris Johnson. It’s not even about the Conservative Party. It’s about Britain

Detectives have more than 300 photographs. And this devastating judgment from Sue Gray, the senior civil servant whose interim Cabinet Office report was released on Monday: "At least some of the gatherings represent a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time."

There’s also newspaper praise for Labour’s Keir Starmer’s moral, forensic and savage destruction of the British prime minister in the Commons.

Boris Johnson’s own woeful Commons response is lacerated. There are reports that Johnson made a comeback behind closed doors when he addressed Tory MPs later in the evening. He promised a shake-up in Downing Street and MPs were reportedly delighted to be told by Johnson that Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby was returning to save the day with his legendary strategic advice.

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According to Michael Fabricant, a Johnson loyalist, the prime minister "really worked the room", adding "I think by the end it was like a Billy Graham evangelical love-in!" The informed view at Westminster among those I spoke to last night is that Johnson may yet survive.

Perhaps he will. 

High standards

But this story is no longer about Boris Johnson. It’s not even about the Conservative Party. It’s about Britain. What we have become. What kind of people we are. Consider this: All previous British prime ministers, without exception, would have been driven from office some time ago if they behaved like Johnson. 

All previous British prime ministers, without exception, would have been driven from office some time ago if they behaved like Johnson

Even the great wartime leader Winston Churchill would have been forced out had he lied to the Commons, as we know that Johnson has done repeatedly. This is because there were high standards in British public life to which all MPs and ministers were expected to respect.

Those standards were implicitly understood through most of the 20th centuries, but not formally set in stone till the law lord Michael Nolan’s report into public standards – ordered by then Conservative Prime Minister John Major in response to an epidemic of Tory sleaze - in 1995.

Nolan set out seven principles which, so he said, should govern British public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. These principles are almost scriptural in their simplicity. Even local parish councils are instructed to abide by Nolan. Not one of the Nolan principles is being observed under Johnson, who makes no attempt to enforce them.

Repeat. Not one.

There’s one standard for ministers, and another for those in the outside world. Breaking them carries no consequences. Some ministers, led by Johnson personally, tell falsehoods to parliament and escape rebuke. Others give contracts to cronies and nobody minds. This had led to a culture of moral corruption, and what looks more and more like actual corruption.

 British former Prime Minister Theresa May asking a question of Boris Johnson, during his statement to MPs following the release of Sue Gray report on 31 January, 2022 (AFP)
Former British Prime Minister Theresa May asking a question of Boris Johnson, during his statement to MPs following the release of Sue Gray report on 31 January,2022 (AFP)

This lying and venality was well-documented before details of Johnson’s breaches of Covid-19 regulations leaked to the press. Few cared. But the stories of Downing Street parties have made headline news because ordinary members of the public can relate to them.

A grave moral crisis

Countless British people made terrible sacrifices to Covid-19 lockdown rules. Johnson and the squalid coterie which surrounds him didn’t. This brings me to the grave moral crisis in Britain today. If Johnson survives, and many expert observers still think he will, we will become a different kind of country. A country where the normal rules of decent conduct don’t apply. Where a prime minister can mislead his colleagues with impunity.

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He was still at it last night. 

Here’s Huffpost: "The prime minister told a meeting of Tory MPs that Lynton Crosby, an Australian political strategist who ran Johnson’s successful 2008 London mayoral campaign, would give him regular strategic advice as part of a Downing Street shakeup." According to the Sun Johnson "confirmed legendary Aussie election guru Sir Lynton Crosby - nicknamed the Wizard of Oz - will return to get a grip on No 10."

The Daily Mail – like the Sun one of Johnson’s loyal supporters – reported that Johnson had vowed to bring back Crosby. In a story headlined "Wizard of Oz Returns" it reported. "The Prime Minister won applause from backbenchers as he told a private meeting that Sir Lynton would return to advise him.”

One would have thought that Huffpost, the Sun and the Mail had learnt by now to take Boris Johnson’s pronouncements with, ahem, a little scepticism. 

Apparently not. There’s no evidence in any of this breathless reporting that these media outlets contacted Sir Lynton to check out whether Johnson and his media spinners were telling the truth. You’d have thought they’d had learnt their lesson by now.

I contacted Sir Lynton late last night and asked him if the reports were true. This is what he said: "I am not going into No. 10 or working in that way. If any Conservative PM asked for advice I would give it." Sir Lynton added: "I am in Australia and have been for months and not back for weeks yet.”

There was, I suppose, a fragment of truth in Johnson’s reported message to MPs, quickly relayed to a credulous media, that Sir Lynton was returning to give Johnson strategic advice.

But only a fragment.

Welcome to the world of Boris Johnson. If he survives it will only get worse. We will become a country where truth is falsehood, black is white and where good is bad. We are already half way there. I am frightened that’s what Britain wants.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.
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