The Debatable Land #7: Theatre of the absurd
The rules of drama demand a sacrifice and only Boris Johnson will do.
Hello and welcome to the latest edition of The Debatable Land. This week it is dominated by a single story for all is not well in Downing Street and this is the only show in town this weekend. As ever, thanks for subscribing and if you felt like encouraging others to sign up that would be a very lovely thing for you to do.
A time for sacrifice
Let us begin with wisdom from David Hume: “When in a faction, [people] are apt, without shame or remorse, to neglect all the ties of honour and morality, in order to serve their party.” Well, quite.
The Conservative party is hardly the only political party to specialise in defending the indefensible but the limitations of the need to do so have rarely been so publicly displayed as has been the case this week. The public can see the truth and the spectacle of Tory cabinet ministers and MPs declaring, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that the prime minister remains fully clad would be hysterical if it weren’t quite so pathetic.
We must, however, wait for Sue Gray’s report into Downing Street’s giddy social calendar. It would be wrong to “pre-judge” the case before all the evidence has been heard. In other circumstances this might be a tenable line but not in this.
For - and I can scarcely believe this needs saying - the prime minister’s own evidence gives the game away. There was a party at Downing Street on May 20th, 2020. The prime minister knew it was a party. The prime minister attended the party. No other facts are relevant or needed. There is no mystery here and even if there were it is one Inspector Clouseau could solve.
Now you may think that a prime ministerial resignation is a sanction too far for what might, if viewed kindly, be considered a tolerably minor breach of the covid regulations. That is certainly a view, albeit a generous one. But it is not possible to argue the regulations were not ignored. Because - at the risk of seeming mad - we have Boris Johnson’s own word they were. And even a prime minister whose relationship with the truth is merely that of an acquaintance may from time to time trip over it.
The crime is the original, stupefyingly stupid, sin and the cover-up merely exacerbates it. Put the two together, however, and you create a tempest that ordinary politicians could not hope to survive.
Hence the decision to, in effect, style it out. So what if there was a party and so what if this flouted the rules accepted by the rest of the country? What are you going to do about it? The prime minister will ignore you now, trusting that in time the media circus will move on and the public will take the charity view this is all tedious ancient history.
Perhaps. But I think not. Even if Gray’s report offers some kind of technical escape clause, the damage has been done. Johnson may survive this month. He may still be in office in six months time. He may even hobble on for another year. Few people, however, believe he will lead the Conservative party into the next election. The end has begun.
And to think it is merely a handful of months since certain folk grandly predicted Johnson might have a decade in Downing Street. A reminder, if it is needed, that sweeping certainty is usually a mistake. Life is a rapid business and never more so than in Downing Street. Yesterday’s cockerel is today’s feather duster.
There is this too: tragedy requires catharsis and even if he does not appreciate this himself Johnson’s role requires his (political) demise. Someone must pay a price for the past two years and a suite of junior, unknown, Downing Street officials won’t cut it.
One defence - offered by Jacob Rees-Mogg, should you wish some information upon which to judge its usefulness - has been that, gosh, the rules were both complicated and difficult to follow and therefore we could not reasonably expect the prime minister to respect them. Well, they were difficult to follow but not for the reasons advanced by Tories this week.
They were difficult because they were, in part, inhumane. Think of the lonely funerals, the families unable to gather to grieve their parents or grandparents or sons or daughters. Think too, of the women compelled to give birth alone without the support or comfort of a partner. Think of the elderly, essentially walled up in their houses for months on end, denied company and stimulus, prisoners of their own vulnerability. Think of those suffering from dementia whose last lucid months were lost to covid.
However necessary you might think these restrictions, they came at a mighty cost and there seems little point in denying this. Important things may still be dreadful things. There is now, I think, a greater awareness of this cost and, perhaps, a resolve to ensure that next time this happens - for there will be a next time - we arrange matters differently. I hope so, for parts of covid were too hard and too lacking in human sympathy.
But! Look! The prime minister and his parliamentary colleagues were responsible for these regulations. If they were too hard for Downing Street to observe they should never have been imposed upon the country. The country did all it could - often at grim cost - to observe both the letter and the spirit of the rules and this explains the righteous fury evident this weekend. (The edge of fury is also sharpened by the obvious truth that the prime minister did not worry about following his own rules because he thought them ridiculous even as he insisted they be imposed on everyone else.)
It is also a question of exhaustion. The government wants to “move on” but no such movement is possible until there has been a reckoning. Few countries have had a “good” pandemic but no-one can claim the United Kingdom has membership of that tiny club. There must be some accountability, even if only of a symbolic kind. The rules of drama demand nothing less and in the absence of anyone more fitting, it seems obvious the prime minister is the most appropriate candidate for the sacrificial scaffold. That is his new role.
Doubtless Johnson would claim this martyrs him and, for sure, he is not blessed with any great measure of self-awareness. Everyone else is out of step bar our Boris. As Tim Shipman reports in the Sunday Times today:
Johnson […] made it clear he was furious with his team. “He had a massive go at them for failing to sort things out,” one of those present told a friend. “He made it clear he thought they had let him down. Boris’s view is that he is not to blame, that everyone else is to blame.”
Johnson did not attack people by name but asked angrily: “How has all this been allowed to happen? How has it come to this? How haven’t you sorted this out?”
This will not do for it is akin to shooting midshipmen when responsibility rests with the admiral. And since a disinclination to accept responsibility is one of the strikes against this prime minister, his continued refusal to do so reinforces the original sin. Sacking junior figures of whom no-one has ever heard will not work.
For, again, it cheats the audience of the outcome it requires. This is not up for negotiation. The king must fall before a new era can commence. “Moving on” - not least in terms of shifting from covid pandemic to endemic covid - ain’t possible without a new prime minister. I do not make the rules of drama - or of tragedy - I merely observe they ain’t there to be bucked. There must be a sacrifice and only one head will do.
Note these two snippets from Shipman’s piece and then construct an argument stating this is a sensible country, sensibly governed by sensible people. Show your working.
Cabinet colleagues say Johnson is “hangdog” and “down” but determined to show that he is up to the job. A senior minister said: “He is in total survival mode. He is so worried that he has started to read his [government] papers.”
[…] Johnson retains the power of patronage […] Gavin Williamson, John Whittingdale and Nick Gibb, all of whom were dumped from government, will be handed knighthoods in the next honours list to keep them quiet.
A bona fide national treasure
In these times some good cheer is desperately needed. I give you, then, 50 minutes of Bob Mortimer on Would I Lie To You?
Love and death after the war is over
Anthony Loyd is Britain’s best - the adjective feels dubious but it is the correct one - war correspondent. His latest piece for The Times is extraordinary. 55 members of the Rifles died in Afghanistan; 22 members of the regiment have since died by “suicide of misadventure” since their return from conflict:
There is a kind of love that only those at war have known. It is the kind of love that makes soldiers brave when they are together but smashes some apart when they are alone. I encountered its thrall again and again as I began to journey through the reflections of the riflemen who had fought in Helmand: a voyage so intimate in the footsteps of a lost war that, were it not for the recall of the horror, I might have been walking through the glowing embers of an impassioned affair.
Some said it directly.
“I had a love for that man,” a 2 Rifles veteran told me last November as he recalled recognising the body of a bomb-torn rifleman, killed in Sangin that savage summer of 2009, by his jawline. He said it so matter-of-factly during an account of such horror that I was caught unawares and spun from a desert to an ocean in the space of seven words.
Helen Lewis wants her life back: “I am desperate for a party. So desperate I would attend an enemy’s book launch. So desperate I would attend an improv-comedy night. So desperate I would see an amateur production of Shakespeare.” [The Atlantic]
David Runciman reads Dominic Cummings’ Substack and ponders it at Cummings-length. Much that is interesting here though in truth the story is as it has always been: Cummings is excellent at diagnosing weakness, less good at prescribing a cure. [Guardian]
Very old but very golden: “The National Westminster Bank in England admitted last month that it keeps personal information about its customers — such as their political affiliation — on computer. But now Computer Weekly reveals that a financial institution, sadly unnamed, has gone one better and moved into the realm of personal abuse. The institution decided to mass-mail 2000 of its richest customers, inviting them to buy extra services. One of its computer programmers wrote a program to search through the databases and select its customers automatically. He tested the program with an imaginary customer called Rich Bastard. Unfortunately, an error resulted in all 2000 letters being addressed “Dear Rich Bastard”. [Snopes]
Ross Douthat quietly suggests those who think America on the brink of civil war calm down, not least since such talk may easily spark the kind of conflagration it is designed to warn against. [NYT]
Richard Burton reading Under Milk Wood, a perfect marriage of voice and material.
That’s all for this week folks and thanks for being here. As always, if you felt like sharing this newsletter with chums or family or on your preferred social media hellhole I’d be much obliged to you.
Wonderful again Alex, I also like how you are trying to bring back the old blogosphere tradition of sharing links to other bits of writing that interested you