If the Labour Party had written a script for the Tories to follow, they would not have dared to come up with anything as outlandish or destructive as recent events have been for the Government.
First came the fines, issued by the police, for officials who had breached lockdown laws and partied in their Whitehall offices. Then David Warburton lost the Conservative whip after allegations of drug abuse, sexual harassment and lobbying on behalf of a Russian businessman from whom the MP had borrowed £150,000. Next came the controversy about the tax status of the wife of Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the admission by Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary and former Chancellor, that he was once a non-dom and had benefited from an offshore trust.
The details and legalities matter little. Javid has explained that he collapsed his trust and paid full tax on the assets he repatriated to Britain, while as Labour admit, nobody has suggested that Sunak or his wife, Akshata Murty, have acted illegally. But the accusation levelled at the Tories – that there is one rule for them and another for the rest of us – is a dangerous one, because it taps into a popular perception that they sometimes behave as the selfish party, concerned too much by the interests of a fortunate few.
And of course, these are not isolated stories. We have already had the Greensill scandal, in which David Cameron lobbied ministers and officials on behalf of a company that sought to profit from the needless financialisation of public assets. We had the failed attempt to overturn the suspension of Owen Paterson, culminating in the Tory by-election defeat in North Shropshire, after Paterson broke the rules and lobbied ministers for a company that employed him.
And we have the ongoing police investigation into whether Boris Johnson himself broke lockdown rules by attending events in his flat and the offices within Number Ten. Here there is already a concerted attempt by loyalists to downplay the significance of the moment should the Prime Minister be fined by the police. Their job has been made easier by the strength Johnson has shown in arming Ukraine and standing up to Russia. They are aided too by the sense that Sunak’s recent difficulties mean he is less likely, for now at least, to win the race to succeed Johnson. And they will use Sunak’s example as a warning against taking a chance on other less experienced candidates.
Regardless of their good fortune, however, the loyalists’ arguments will not wash. It is not sustainable, for example, for Downing Street to keep the names of senior staffers or officials secret after they have been fined. Nor is it sustainable for fines issued in relation to events in the Downing Street flat to be kept secret. Nor can the Prime Minister or his spokesmen get away with refusing to accept that it will be established, if he is issued with a fine he accepts and pays, that he has broken the law.
However much the loyalists may wish to convince themselves otherwise, the idea that a prime minister should survive a process that finds him guilty not only of breaking the law, but breaking extraordinary laws he imposed and implored the public to respect, is simply absurd. So too is the idea that he should survive after denying breaking those laws and issuing emphatic denials in Parliament.
The Conservative Party might be capable of deluding itself thus, but if it does the public will draw very different conclusions. They will see a Government – already struggling with inflation and finding it difficult to get things done – closing ranks and showing appalling double standards.
This is dangerous enough for the Tories, but if part of the strategy to prop up the Prime Minister is to limit and discredit potential successors, there follow two more problems. Keeping tall poppies away from high office will mean the quality of day-to-day government will continue to suffer. And it will risk a crisis of leadership following the Johnson premiership, whenever it ends, as the choices are narrowed unnecessarily. It is ridiculous that the likes of Tom Tugendhat and Jeremy Hunt remain on the backbenches, and ridiculous that some in Downing Street see only advantage in Sunak’s recent difficulties.
With notable exceptions – such as Nadhim Zahawi’s vaccine rollout, Ben Wallace’s work arming the Ukrainians, and Priti Patel’s forthcoming plans to establish offshore processing for asylum claims – much of what the Government is doing is piecemeal, technocratic and often contradictory. The Tories want to intervene in the economy, but have junked their industrial strategy. They say they want lower taxes, but keep putting them up. They promise to level-up the country, but while Michael Gove has the ideas, he lacks the spending power for them to make a difference quickly enough.
As with the questions of ethical standards in government, this lack of coherence can be explained in part by the Prime Minister’s style of leadership. Johnson has deliberately formed a third eleven cabinet, to avoid creating powerful rivals. He has set lofty targets, but neither formed detailed plans to achieve them, nor empowered ministers to do so. He has appointed a chancellor with whom he was always going to clash thanks to their contrasting methods of working and starkly different views of fiscal policy.
Tired governments, made complacent by years in office, come to believe that their position of power will last forever. They lose sight of the bigger picture, drift into technocratic decision-making, and their fights with one another grow more important than those with opposing parties and vested interests.
Unfortunately, this government now suffers all these ills.
So now seems a good time for Conservatives to remind themselves of the binary nature of power in our parliamentary democracy. You either hold power, or you do not. You can change the country, or you can watch the other side change it in ways you dislike.
The Tories face a choice between the privilege of power and the emptiness of opposition. If they are not careful they will soon suffer the latter.