Thursday briefing: Gray’s report confirms Boris Johnson’s agenda - his own survival

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<span>Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP</span>
Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

Good morning. It’s the little things, isn’t it? The disrespect shown towards security and cleaning staff; the wine on the walls; the Downing Street staffer getting so drunk they were sick; two others having a fight; the senior civil servant who texted “we seem to have got away with it”. Sue Gray’s report has not dislodged the prime minister. But it has created an indelible image of the culture he oversaw, and the sense of tacit sanction under which his staff were operating.

Jessica Elgot reports that MPs keeping count believe three more letters of no confidence in the prime minister have gone in – but yesterday was also a victory of sorts for Boris Johnson, who emerged wounded but still in place. One Tory MP tells the FT (£) today: “Most of us are resigned to the fact that he won’t be going but that we’ve lost the next general election.”

That assessment reflects the larger problem – the fact that Johnson’s purpose as prime minister has narrowed to his own survival, and the way the rest of the political agenda has been co-opted to that end. Alcohol has been consumed, we read; so has Downing Street.

Today’s newsletter, with Guardian columnist Rafael Behr, is about how the tail started to wag the big dog, and what that means for how the government operates. That’s right after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Texas shooting | The gunman who killed 21 people in Uvalde signalled his intentions in a Facebook message a few minutes before beginning his attack.

  2. Cost of living | Rishi Sunak is expected to set out plans for a controversial windfall tax on energy companies on Thursday, as he proposes measures to ease the pain of rising household bills.

  3. Parliament | Sexual abuse, harassment and bullying accusations made against MPs are treated as “mere gossip”, dozens of Conservative staffers have said, in a letter urging Boris Johnson and party HQ to do more to tackle the problem.

  4. Medicine | NHS surgeons have successfully performed the world’s first double hand transplant for scleroderma, an autoimmune disease. Steven Gallagher, the recipient, said the operation had given him “a new lease of life”.

  5. US | Supermodel Kate Moss testified in the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation trial. Moss said that the rumour that Depp pushed her down a flight of stairs when they were in a relationship was untrue.

In depth: ‘Johnson will always act in the interests of whoever he’s most afraid of’

A police officer knocks outside 10 Downing Street, 19 April 2022.
A police officer knocks outside 10 Downing Street in April. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

At the end of his statement to the House of Commons yesterday, Boris Johnson tried to draw a line under Sue Gray’s investigation by emphasising his priorities for the future. “I hope very much that now she has reported we will be able to move on and focus on the priorities of the British people,” he said. “That is my mission, that is our mission, that is the mission of the whole of the government, and we will work day and night to deliver it.”

It’s a noble sentiment – but one which recent events appear to fatally undermine. Here are some of the ways Johnson’s government appears to have reoriented its mission from the good of the country to the good of the prime minister.

***

Big announcements are emerging with suspiciously good timing

After weeks of delay and disagreement, a package of measures to help with the cost of living will finally be announced today – and if Rishi Sunak’s embrace of the near-mythological windfall tax helps to turn the page on the Sue Gray fallout, so much the better. The day after Johnson became the first serving prime minister to have been found to have broken the law while in office, the government’s controversial plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda to be processed was all over the front pages. And if Volodymyr Zelenskiy wants to know when he’s going to get a phone call from the British prime minister, all he has to do is set a Google alert for “new Partygate revelations”.

Governments always time their announcements for maximum political impact, and dead cats can be so overrated as a theory of politics as to edge into conspiracy. But there is now a sense that governing priorities are being specifically tailored to minimise the harm of the Partygate story to the prime minister, instead of to the benefit of the government and the country as a whole.

“I’m generally wary of that sort of thinking,” said Rafael Behr. “But with this lot – one former cabinet office official said to me, if you are ever in doubt about the motives for anything they’re doing, imagine the most cynical, short-termist reason you can think of, and there’s your answer. [Boris’s] entire career has been about getting out of scrapes, and that means there won’t be any sustained thinking behind anything.”

***

The people in the background

“The entire senior management has changed,” Boris Johnson said yesterday, doughtily ignoring the hecklers who pointed out that actually, one quite important part of the senior management had stayed the same. Nonetheless, it’s true that he has a new chief of staff, a new director of communications, and a new parliamentary private secretary. The question is whether we should be persuaded that this is really about instituting a new working culture – or firming up the prime minister’s grip on power.

The most controversial new appointment is one Johnson didn’t mention in the House of Commons: the installation of David Canzini, an acolyte of his previous election guru Sir Lynton Crosby, as deputy chief of staff. Canzini “has a very similar ethos to Dominic Cummings”, said Rafael. His idea, inherited from Crosby, of getting “the barnacles off the boat” and focusing on the most broadly appealing policies, is “a campaign ethos, not a governing ethos”.

Canzini has set about instituting “dividing line” policies which are driving the government further to the right. He is said to have been an enthusiastic advocate for the Rwanda policy, and responsible for the government’s decision to drop a ban on conversion therapy for trans people.

“It’s kind of amazing that the appointment of deputy chief of staff can change the whole strategic direction of government,” one backbencher told the Times (£) recently. “But that’s a reflection of Boris. For Boris it doesn’t matter what the policies are, as long as he’s still prime minister.”

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Backbenchers are dragging the government to the right

When Johnson won an 80-seat majority in the last election, it was hailed by some as a chance for him to show his true colours as a “one nation” Tory or – in his own words – a “Brexity Hezza” who believed Tories should be “the warriors of the dispossessed”. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the threat of his removal has been enough to neuter those instincts and force him to pander to the most rightwing voices in his party.

“All that’s gone out of the window,” Rafael said. “Johnson knows the underlying dynamics of his party well enough to understand that when you are unpopular, the bit of the party you have to be wary of is the faction that has done in just about every Tory leader in our lifetimes.” Indeed, one MP, described as a senior Brexiteer, told the BBC’s Newsnight last night: “We have to destroy Boris Johnson for the sake of this country and the sake of our party.”

That might explain why Johnson delayed – or dumped – measures designed to attack Britain’s obesity crisis, like an end to “buy one get one free” deals on junk food and a pre-9pm watershed for TV advertising. Meanwhile, there are fears the government could soon ditch some of its net-zero commitments, an attack on Channel 4, the abandonment of animal cruelty legislation, and draconian measures against the right to protest.

“There was no reason to jettison the obesity stuff other than to appease the mindless libertarian wing,” Rafael said. “I’d keep an eye on the deadline for replacing gas boilers, too.”

Not for nothing did right-wingers Peter Bone and Desmond Swayne leap to Johnson’s defence even before the Sue Gray report was published. “They don’t like Boris, and they don’t trust him,” Rafael said. “But they like having a wounded prime minister, who believes in nothing, and bears the imprint of whoever last sat on him, and will always act in the interests of whoever he’s most afraid of.”

***

Read more on the Sue Gray report

  • “If being prime minister is to captain a ship, the Johnson of the Gray report commands a cruise vessel,” writes Peter Walker in his analysis. “One where the main task involves being amiable to passengers at the dinner table.”

  • The Guardian’s leader: “Mr Johnson told MPs he took responsibility, but failed to explain how. The assertion was no more convincing than his affectation of humility.”

  • John Crace’s sketch: “‘We are humbled,’ he said with a dismissive, regal wave of his arm. Except he wasn’t at all.”

  • Sue Gray said she did not fully investigate an alcohol-fuelled gathering in the flat shared by the prime minister and his wife Carrie. Aubrey Allegretti reports on Tory MPs’ fears of a “cover-up”.

  • ConservativeHome sees the prime minister’s secret weapon as boredom. “By simply hanging on in there, he has given much of the parliamentary party, and a majority of party members, the time and space in which to become sick and tired of his foes.”

What else we’ve been reading

  • It’s been two years since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. The flagrant display of brutal violence sparked a movement, but Afua Hirsch wonders what has actually changed since. Nimo

  • Martin Lewis didn’t really mean to be political. But in an era where the poorest need to be money saving experts to survive, he tells Zoe Williams, it was an inevitability. Archie

  • Writer Jack Rooke has a Channel 4 comedy called Big Boys coming out all about a friendship between Jack, who is gay, and his straight best pal, Danny. Rooke writes about his own best friend, and why this kind of relationship is often neglected in British TV. Nimo

  • When Harry Styles dresses in a blouse or a tight crimson jumpsuit or something else that makes the public swoon/panic, Harry Lambert had something to do with it. Morwenna Ferrier talked to the stylist who’s “Thomas Cromwell to Styles’s Henry VIII, but dissolving binaries instead of monasteries”. Archie

  • Elephant’s breath! Revere pewter! Chic Shadow! These, and many other names for “greige”, are enumerated in Elle Hunt’s read on how it became the suffocatingly dull paint colour of our times (and, ahem, my living room). Archie

Sport

Tennis | Emma Raducanu lost in the second round of the French Open. She fell to world No 47 Aliaksandra Sasnovich 3-6, 6-1, 6-1.

Football | Roma won the inaugural Europa conference league final with a 1-0 victory over Feyenoord. The trophy is the first ever Uefa title for Jose Mourinho’s side.

Football | Burnley are close to appointing the former Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany as their manager. Kompany is understood to be ready to leave his job at Anderlecht to bring Burnley back up to the Premier League.

The front pages

There’s quite a contrast in how the papers report the findings of Sue Gray’s report. “Drinking, fights, vomiting: all in a day’s work, says PM” is the Guardian’s splash headline, while the Mirror says that the government was having parties and “Laughing at us all” while people were sacrificing and mourning alone during lockdown. The Metro picks up the comment from a senior aide to Boris Johnson as its headline – “‘We got away with it’” – and the i runs with the theme of Gray’s conclusion: “‘Failure of leadership’”. In Scotland the Record says “Tory party enough to make you sick”.

For some editors, the Gray report is a damp squib. The Mail asks “Is that it?” and the Express has a similar “Really… is this what all the fuss is about”. The Sun declares that “The Party(gate) is over”. The Telegraph leads on “Sunak to extend energy bill relief”, although it does have a front page report headlined “Johnson denies cover-up of ‘Abba party’ at Downing Street flat”. Similarly, the Times leads on “Energy bill handouts to ease the big squeeze” with “Gray report vindicates me over No 10 parties, claims Johnson” as a second story.

Today in Focus

The Partygate saga culminated with the release of the Sue Gray report yesterday. Peter Walker and Jonathan Freedland analyse what it means for Boris Johnson.

Cartoon of the day | Martin Rowson

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

After the Grenfell Tower caught ablaze in 2017, taking the lives of 72 people, Tayshan Hayden-Smith was, like much of the country, distraught. In an effort to do something he went to local garden centres and plant nurseries to ask for donations to transform the area.

Hayden-Smith had become a guerrilla gardener and began dedicating his time to reclaiming community spaces. The space came to be known as the Grenfell Garden of Peace, injecting sense of unity and togetherness into the area. Hayden-Smith is now the founder of Grow2Know and is taking his project to other parts of London. These include the RHS Chelsea flower show, where the Hands Off Mangrove garden this week won a silver gilt medal.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.

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