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For followers of British politics, this week was probably best understood in terms of quantum physics. For the past six months, the prime minister and his cabinet explained that they couldn’t comment on the Partygate scandal because they were waiting for the Sue Gray report. Then, the very day that report was published, they explained it was in the past now and it was time to move on.
I know what you’re thinking: then WHEN?! When was the permitted moment to get some actual accountability?! Well, scientists estimate there were four picoseconds of liminal time on Wednesday when lawbreaking by lawmakers was an appropriate subject on which to challenge said lawmakers. It was hoped some challengers would be able to enter this witching moment without getting drawn into a black hole, and somehow extend the moment to try to work out what the hell the answers were.
A version of this device was used on an episode of Stargate once, so would probably only need minor adjustment for Westminster. But in fact, the window of opportunity – the window of “taking responsibility” – closed before it had even opened. Or to put it another way: if you’ve been sitting in your metaphorical cop car staking out Downing Street for six months, you now have jack shit to show for it bar severe doughnut-induced arterial hardening. And I should probably tell you that while you were waiting, like a coiled Krispy Kreme, the government junked its obesity strategy, so … thoughts and prayers. Oh, and while you were reading this, the prime minister changed the ministerial code so ministers accused of breaking it – eg him – don’t have to resign. Shitfinger strikes again! Seriously, everything he touches ...
There has been an increase in the number of Tory MPs who’ll say publicly that a prime minister breaking his own laws at a time of widespread national distress is a bit of a dealbreaker. But a fascinating number still cling to Johnson. They’re not parasites, biologically speaking. They lack the drive of a flatworm, much less the root-for-me resourcefulness of the sort of alien you might expect to see protruding from a prime ministerial chest cavity. No, think of them more as a huge barnacle community living on the underside of a whale. Unfortunately, the rest of us only get this clear a view of who’s on board when the whale has done something perhaps fatally unfortunate, like swim up the Thames, or explain why its lady petrol-fuelled leaving speech was more important than your mother’s lonely death.
Anyway. The things Boris Johnson says to the 1922 Committee are far more revealing than the things he tells the silly old public, and on Wednesday he explained to backbenchers that Britain wouldn’t have won the second world war if Churchill hadn’t been pissed. This comparison simply makes me picture Churchill giving Johnson a hugely disdainful look up and down, and saying: “Well, sir, you are useless at your job. But I shall be sober in the morning.” You see, Johnson has made the classic mistake of comparing himself to people who are dazzlingly competent. Very, very bold to bring Britain’s greatest wartime leader into it. Other figures to avoid would be the likes of iconic Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane, who also managed to pull off a glittering career while getting regularly wasted.
The Downing Street pandemic officials, in contrast, oversaw a catastrophically mismanaged response to Covid that resulted in thousands of people – probably tens of thousands – dying unnecessarily. The sole stellar bright spot – the vaccines taskforce – was worked on remotely by others. Quite why we’re expected to see the emotional-support booze suitcase as essential to this lot’s process has never been explained. At some point we might just have to consider a mad counterfactual to rank alongside questions such as, “What if Keane’s Blackburn deal had gone through and he’d never signed for United?” and “What if Hitler had won the war?” Namely: what if Downing Street pandemic staff HADN’T been pissed half the time? I don’t want to return too much to sci-fi quantum physics, but I think we’d all love a wormhole to transport us to that sunlit bit of the multiverse and away from this version.
The sole upside to the Partygate disgrace was that the need to distract from it seems to have finally forced the chancellor’s hand on the cost of living crisis. And so to unhappy boyband member Rishi Sunak, who really wants to give audiences his bad-boy, tax-cutting Conservatism, but keeps getting pushed into crowd-pleasing, cheesy harmonies and U-turns during the second chorus. You know the kind of fare: new household support measures, windfall taxes.
Still, if the past six months have taught us anything about the type of artist we’re dealing with, it’s that Rishi Sunak is too wet to do a Robbie and quit. Reports that Sunak spent £500,000 of Treasury cash on vanity-adjacent polling and focus groups feel closer to the mark. Maybe one of the hard truths the focus groups have told him is that the previously popular Rishi Sunak franchise was all about giving people money: via furlough, or in the form of half-price burgers and whatnot during eat out to help out. Nobody knew who he was before all that. Unfortunately, they now know he’s a guy who couldn’t even get his own wife to pay him tax, so he needs to double down harder than ever on being Mr UnConservative. No one wants to hear his new stuff.
As for how long they’ll be able to stand the prime minister’s old tunes, that remains a question with variable answers. Free to those who can afford it, very expensive to those who can’t.
Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist