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Politics as spectacle used to be a struggle between two leaders from opposing parties contending to lead the country. New Labour did things differently, when two leaders from the same party fought for the right to lead the country. Now, the Brexit Conservative Party has taken it one stage further, and we are paying to watch the epic struggle between two Boris Johnsons seeking to guide the nation’s affairs.
The first Boris Johnson is an entitled Tory of the old school, who hangs around with rich people who pay for his holidays and wallpaper, which he thinks is nobody’s business but his own. The second Boris Johnson is a new kind of politician who understands how fed up people are with politicians like the first Boris Johnson. The second Boris put himself at the head of a revolt against an establishment that had conspired to keep the unheard majority in a European superstate.
The drama of the past few days has been entirely a conflict between the two sides of the prime minister’s personality. On Wednesday, Tory MPs were whipped by the first Boris Johnson to vote, in effect, to get rid of Kathryn Stone, the independent standards commissioner, who had asked impertinent questions about the funding of Johnson’s holiday in Mustique after the 2019 election.
On Thursday, Jacob Rees-Mogg was sent to the Commons by the second Boris Johnson to say that the coup against an independent watchdog was a terrible mistake and that he was calling it off. Owen Paterson, the Tory former cabinet minister who thought he had been rescued by his friends in high places – and unwisely gave an interview saying he would lobby for payment again – was cast to the outer darkness. Much damage had been done to the prime minister’s reputation, but at least the second Boris Johnson had limited it.
Then, on Friday, the first Boris Johnson fought back. No, he wasn’t going to put a figure on how much his Spanish holiday at the Goldsmith family’s villa was worth, and no, he wasn’t going to put it in the Register of Members’ Interests where Stone could get at it – he was going to declare it in the List of Ministers’ Interests instead.
All such struggles at the top of politics are fascinating, and this one is no less interesting because it is being fought out between two halves of the same brain. It adds to the entertainment that many on the left dislike both Johnsons equally: one because he is a Tory, the other because he is a Brexiteer. However, the ruthless election-winning man of the people is on the defensive, because the entitled Tory of the old school still thinks he can get away with it.
It is important that he shouldn’t, because that would be a backwards step on to a slippery slope. And it is encouraging that other players have entered the scene. The thing about epic political struggles is that they draw attention away from other characters, as William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard discovered in the New Labour era, and as even Rishi Sunak is discovering now. Yet Boris Johnson is not hogging all the limelight.
Tory MPs as a collective body forced Thursday’s U-turn. Their reaction against having been whipped into doing the wrong thing was so furious that even the first Boris Johnson knew he wouldn’t be able to see it through. Let us pause to praise the 13 Tory heroes of the people who voted against the government, and the many more who abstained.
Now, it is good to see others come to the defence of Stone, who has done a difficult job as standards commissioner with impartial thoroughness. It is unusual for the non-MP members of the standards committee to give interviews, but Tammy Banks was quite right to respond to the attack on Stone by Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary. Kwarteng said on Thursday morning, before the U-turn: “It’s difficult to see what the future of the commissioner is, given that we’re reviewing the process, but it’s up to the commissioner.”
Banks, who is one of seven independent outsiders on the 14-person committee to which Stone reports, said today: “I was upset and really disappointed.” She rejected “slanderous comments” about Stone – referring to Paterson’s complaints about her investigation into his case – “which I’ve just been appalled by because she works hard, she does her best, and above everything else, she’s fair”.
This is important because I have heard Westminster insiders say, as a sorrowful observation rather than a vendetta, that Stone will have to go because she has fallen out with the government. They point to Elizabeth Filkin, the second commissioner, whose three-year term wasn’t renewed in 2002 after Labour ministers bridled at some of her decisions.
Stone has a five-year term that runs until the end of next year. She must be allowed to see it through. The rules on standards in public life are designed to avoid conflicts of interest. They must apply to the prime minister, and be seen to apply to him. Both of him.