Allies say Boris Johnson is still upset by his sacking from the Conservative frontbench in 2004 for dismissing as “an inverted pyramid of piffle” reports he was having an affair with the journalist Petronella Wyatt. He was sacked by the Tory leader Michael Howard for lying about it.
Johnson vowed never to speak about his private life again. As his former adviser Dominic Cummings recalled this week: “There’s only one thing ‘irreversible’… only one line that is ever held through crises, and all in Number 10 live by this rule: ‘no comment’ on PM’s private life. Everything else is ‘reversible’ and usually reversed.”
His rule led Johnson to make the wrong call in the Matt Hancock controversy. The revelation about his affair with his aide Gina Coladangelo was not primarily about personal matters, as Johnson initially seemed to think, but hypocrisy over social distancing rules. Remarkably, Johnson claimed retrospectively he played a role in Hancock’s departure, even though Downing Street said after the disclosures the matter was closed.
After last month’s local elections and Hartlepool by-election, Johnson’s allies drew the self-serving conclusion that voters didn’t care about “Tory sleaze,” which Labour had pushed hard after the row about who funded the refurbishment of the prime minister’s Downing Street flat. If, as expected, the Tories win tomorrow’s by-election in Batley and Spen, Johnson might be tempted to conclude voters are not worried by the Hancock story. But a Tory victory should not be interpreted as a vote of confidence in the government; it would be primarily due to the maverick George Galloway taking votes from Labour.
Robert Buckland, normally one of the grown-ups in a pretty juvenile cabinet, illustrated the government’s complacency on standards. The justice secretary told BBC Radio 4: “The prime minister has his finger on the pulse of the nation, and is supported, respected, liked, and is a prime minister who’s getting on with the job or delivering the people’s priorities.” Pointing to last month’s election results, Buckland dismissed sleaze allegations as “just talk” by people with an anti-Johnson agenda.
Johnson is lucky that many voters still give him the benefit of the doubt, but it is largely because of Covid. The vaccine rollout, the furlough scheme and the British instinct to rally round the government in a national emergency all insulate him from the criticism he would face in normal times. It won’t last.
At yesterday’s cabinet meeting, Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, gave his all-important nod of approval to end the remaining restrictions in England on 19 July. The new normal in everyday life won’t be the same as the old but will usher in a return to normal politics. That won’t mean Johnson suddenly loses support overnight. The volatile politics of the Brexit era, with traditional party loyalties broken, has served Johnson so well. But it might yet return to bite him - for example, if he were to dismiss the next scandal in the way he initially misjudged Hancock’s behaviour.
Unlike Johnson, the voters called the Hancock story right from the outset; by a 2-1 margin, people thought he should resign. One day, I think, Johnson will discover the public do care about sleaze, and do not like his cavalier approach to standards.
After a public consultation exercise, the committee on standards on public life concluded “significant reform” is needed to the ministerial code; the rules on ex-ministers taking up business appointments; lobbying and public appointments.
Prophetically, the sleaze watchdog said the “most concerning category” of unregulated appointments are the non-executive directors who oversee government departments – like Coladangelo, who was handed such a £15,000-a-year post by Hancock. Although the ministerial code says these directors should largely be drawn from the "commercial private sector,” the committee warned there is “an increasing trend amongst ministers to appoint supporters or political allies.”
All the areas flagged up by the committee have been an issue under Johnson. I can’t think of another PM in modern times who would have allowed Priti Patel, found by the ministerial adviser to have broken the ministerial code by bullying civil servants, to stay in her post while the adviser resigned. Johnson’s instinct might well be to pay lip service to the committee’s proposals this autumn, but he would be wise to implement them in full.
The public might tolerate awarding jobs and contracts for personal protective equipment or public relations to ministers’ friends and political allies in an emergency, but not in normal times. When the country finally emerges from the pandemic, voters will care more about such matters, and want to see ministers who break the rules sacked. As one senior Tory told me: “The cover from Covid and the vaccine won’t last forever. That means sleaze can damage us over time. It’s the drip, drip effect, until one day the dam bursts.”
Johnson allies counter that public dislike of all politicians is already “baked in”, just as his own colourful private life is “priced in.” But even “it’s just Boris” will have a shelf life; everything in politics does.