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Voices: This Tory meltdown is as close to a piece of political performance art as you are ever likely to see

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Seventeen straight days then, or is that lifetimes, of MPs debating “standards in public life”, with no real sign of much in the way of a breakthrough.

A long afternoon in the House of Commons, and an equally long one for the prime minister, facing questions from a committee of backbench MPs, provides a curiously apt framing for the subject that just will not go away.

Caroline Nokes is chair of the Women and Equalities Committee and thus sits on the Liaison Committee, the committee of committee chairmen which cross-examines the prime minister every few months. It meant that the actual prime minister was being interrogated by a woman who, some 24 hours before, had accused the prime minister’s father of sexual misconduct, having slapped her hard on the backside in 2003 and made an abysmal joke. (Stanley Johnson has denied the allegation and says he has “no recollection of Caroline Nokes at all”.)

Meanwhile, the First Family’s sister Rachel was, for reasons only she can truly understand, writing a column about how she “feels sorry for Ghislaine Maxwell” – who is awaiting trial for multiple crimes including the sex trafficking of a minor – for reasons that do not seem to extend beyond having known her a bit at Oxford and going to a party at her house.

Is it, in such a world, possible to actually feel sorry for Boris Johnson? On what grounds, really, with what right, do we expect him to do anything to sort out “standards in public life”?

Johnson is a truly hopeless leader but he is not a hopeless politician, and as such he moved with his usual method of the grand, detail-free gesture to nullify Keir Starmer’s ongoing attempts to seize upon the appalling events of the last two weeks.

He has issued new guidance on second jobs, which will have to be brought into force with actual legislation, even though they make no sense. The new rules will apparently compel MPs to keep outside work within “reasonable” limits. The trade secretary, Ann Marie Trevelyan, was sent out to do the morning media rounds, to sell the new policy. But as she did so, she continued to insist that Geoffrey Cox, who has been living part time in the Caribbean and doing at least 20 hours a week of work as a barrister, earning millions of pounds, had not, in fact, done anything that could be construed as outside “reasonable” limits.

Enough is enough. Things have to change. But no one has done anything wrong.

So that’s clear.

At Prime Minister’s Questions, almost no one bothered to turn up and sit behind Johnson. During the very worst bits of the pandemic, when Johnson was being ritualistically humiliated by Keir Starmer, it was often speculated that things would be better for him once his usual army of braying dimwits were allowed back in again to shout the other side down. Well, they are allowed back in now, but they don’t turn up, because they have been humiliated, and not by Keir Starmer, but by their own boss.

They were wise to keep away too. He came armed with a gag so bad about “Mishconduct de Reya” – a pun on Starmer having been offered some paid work by the law firm Mischon de Reya several years ago – that the speaker made him withdraw it, and quite right too.

All this remains, and sorry that we have typed this out so many times before, one of the truly great sh*tshows.

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That Johnson has managed to turn essentially all of his MPs against him, by ordering everybody to go along with an act of egregious corruption, and then having done it, going back on it, humiliating and enraging both sides in equal measure, is as close to a piece of political performance art as you are ever likely to see.

He will be hoping now, naturally, that he has done what he usually does. Sweep in with the big new announcement (see also, raising national insurance to pay for social care) that will make the headlines go away, and then it will all just fade away through the lack of any real detail, and his MPs will just quietly go back to doing whatever it is they were doing before, safe within the deliberately vague, indefinable limits he has set for them.

And maybe they will. But also, maybe, and maybe this is all highly pre-emptive, this particular sh*tshow really does have the whiff of permanence about it. It’s not the first or last time the prime minister has accidentally soiled himself in public, but this one just doesn’t seem to be coming clean.

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