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A Bit of a Pickle

A Bit of a Pickle

boris johnson in the cabinet office

Inflation racing ahead? Trains ground to a standstill? We Brits are not having the best of weeks. Unfair to lay all the blame on the government, for once, though it will get flak. And that, as our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, is on top of all the other nasties in Boris Johnson’s in tray.

The Conservative party always prided itself on being a broad church. But these days it feels like it’s trying to keep Satan onside as well as God.

Come Thursday, with the likely loss of two by-elections, the near-impossibility of holding together the two so widely divergent wings will be writ large for all to see.

In traditionally Labour and highly marginal Wakefield, a sizeable slice of voters switched sides on the twin promises of Brexit and levelling up.

Hitherto rock-solid Tory Tiverton and Honiton, on the other hand, is home to many who fear they might be levelled down, and are more nuanced about Brexit.

If they do both go, Conservative MP’s, especially those with small majorities, will get a fresh bout of post-partygate jitters.

And a fair number who supported Johnson in the confidence vote may well wish they hadn’t.

But the question of whether he lied to parliament about lockdown law-breaking knees-ups may come under the spotlight before that.

It’s thought the high-powered committee looking into whether this was a hanging offence may begin the process as soon as this week.

If nothing else, that might concentrate a few voters’ minds as they deliberate which way to jump on Thursday.

Timing, after all, matters as much in managing politics as in making jokes. If you can tell the difference, sometimes.

Consider the resignation last week of Johnson’s ethics adviser, and former private secretary to the Queen, Lord Geidt.

Discretion is bored through his veins like lettering in a stick of seaside rock.

And it’s thought in spite of his huge misgivings over partygate he didn’t quit before the confidence vote as he didn’t think he should influence its outcome.

Instead, accusing Johnson of ‘making a mockery of the ministerial code’ he quit over an obscure, technical and easily defended breach of international rules.

The theory doing the rounds in Westminster is that Number Ten consulted him needlessly, just to give him a weak and rather baffling reason for flouncing off.

In short, they stitched him up. Uncourtly language, but to quote a character from The Importance of Being Earnest: ‘When I see a spade I call it a spade.’

And another Oscar Wilde line was riffed on last week. That idea that losing one parent may be a misfortune, while a second looks like carelessness.

This because Lord Geidt is the second moral mentor to give up on the Prime Minister.

No great surprise though, according to what one person, believe it or not an old mate of Johnson’s, reportedly said to a Daily Telegraph correspondent:

‘Imagine being the ethics adviser to a man with the ethics of a f*cking polecat.’

As if to confirm the point, Downing Street’s dropping broad hints that in future it can do without someone telling it what it can’t do.

But ironies have been swirling around Westminster like pollen in the hay fever season.

It suits Labour to see Johnson publicly flogged by his own people. But they don’t want him actually put to death as he’s widely regarded as their chief asset.

In an unguarded moment, a shadow cabinet minister admitted to a New Stateman hack that partygate is: ‘Bad for the country, great for us.’

But not, apparently, great enough. Starmer’s army continues to outstrip the Tories in the polls, but its lead is far short of commanding.

Disappointing for them, of course, but baffling for the government.

At one point, during the height of the confidence vote chaos, the Deputy Prime Minister confessed: ‘The surprise is why Labour aren’t doing better.’

The answer could be that Sir Keir isn’t exactly tickling the nation’s sweet spot any more than Johnson. Or that of some of his own people.

After he went on telly in an arguably gratuitous attempt to capitalise on Tory infighting, one despairing ally grumbled: “What the f*ck was the point of that?’

Another regretted, also in colourful terms, that Labour’s quest for a contrasting figure to Johnson at the helm may have gone too far:

‘There is a big difference between not being Mr Razzamatazz and boring everyone to death.’

After that killer quote appeared in The Times, Sir Keir instructed shadow cabinet ministers to stop telling journalists he’s boring.

‘What’s boring is being in opposition,’ he fulminated.

This was immediately leaked to The Guardian, by a shadow minister who added the discussion that followed was: ‘Ironically, quite boring.’

By contrast, Johnson and his Chancellor will do their utmost to put vim and vigour into a planned double act speech on the economy this week.

They’ll need to, with interest rates now hiked yet again and a former Bank of England governor warning more’s needed to prevent 1970’s style slump.

Mervyn King also said Johnson needs to fess up to the prospect of living standards falling sharply over the next year.

Little wonder big business is calling on ministers to do something, and do it fast. Especially as it is, at least in part, the government’s fault.

The Confederation of British Industry’s chief economist, Rain Newton-Smith, cites factors few could have foreseen, like the Ukraine war and global pandemic.

But he doesn’t stop there.

‘Continued strains on supply chains – all preceded by Brexit – have proven to be a toxic recipe for UK growth.’

And with little likelihood of tax cuts before next year, Johnson does need at least to throw some compensatory red meat to those who so wanted out of the EU.

Which is probably behind his twin battles with European judges, over Northern Ireland’s trade arrangements and asylum seekers’ one-way tickets to Rwanda.

It’s no surprise to anyone in Whitehall that in both cases the high risk strategy is thus far floundering, and bringing a lot of stick the government’s way.

But what matters to Brexit hardliners is the principle of the thing. That Johnson’s blowing a big fat raspberry at Johnny Foreigner.

Worth remembering that that was the pitch that got him in in the first place. He bought off the Tories’ UKIP tendency by plumping for Leave. On tough terms.

At least he’s still doing his bit for Ukraine. Showing his face in Kiev with President Zelensky, and making promises, that he probably will keep, of more help.

And therein lies the biggest irony of all. As Putin spreads mayhem and reduces once thriving cities to rubble he’s also shafting his own country.

Far from insulating Russia from the West, he’s brought its borders closer than ever, now that Ukraine looks set to be fast-tracked into the European Union.

And, in a delicious little twist, though anything but for the Russian troops who stole some cherries in territory they’ve occupied, loads of them fell ill.

Unbeknown to them – until it worked its poisonous magic – the fruits had been treated by the farmers with chemicals.

A metaphor for the whole sickening business? Certainly a celebratory thought for decent people the world over.

Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, working with London Broadcasting and Sky News. For more of his fascinating musings on the turbulent political landscape, follow him on Facebook & Twitter.

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