An adulterated Turkish proverb is doing the rounds: “When a clown moves into a palace, he doesn’t become a king. The palace becomes a circus.”
Well, a circus would be more organised than whatever happened in the British government this week. We have a broken swing and a clown who barely has enough balls to juggle with. Cirque du Soleil, this is not.
After four officials resigned from Downing Street on Thursday, a junior Treasury minister was asked by a news anchor if it felt like the last days of Rome. “No, it doesn’t,” he replied. “The last days of Rome, I think, were more fun.” Given that those days involved military defeats, spiralling corruption and starvation, that’s all the insight we need into the mood in Westminster.
Barring a miracle, these are the last days of Boris Johnson: Churchill impersonator, the First Fraud of the Treasury, the man who forgot being a Heineken politician was only a metaphor. We knew it would end badly, and now it is. It’s so bad that there aren’t enough female officials to act as scapegoats; some men are having to resign too.
On Monday we learnt that police are now investigating 12 parties at Downing Street, including at least four that Johnson himself attended. He responded by promising to reform government “leadership structures”, as if an organigram might remind him not to bring his own booze. There would be a new “office of the prime minister” — a Department for Revelling Up, if you will. But Australian strategist Lynton Crosby is reportedly among those declining to join.
This is the slight flaw in the idea that Johnson can run the country by delegating all the real work: what happens when there is no one left who wants to be delegated to? Meanwhile, only this prime minister’s government could publish a 101-page document about the benefits of Brexit in the same week that Northern Ireland’s first minister resigns due to the Brexit deal.
Some of the rancour against Johnson is over the top. A cake in the cabinet room is not a resignation-worthy offence. But the parties summed up his attitude to politics and life: that rules are for other people.
This week I watched him make three misleading statements in parliament: he said that the UK has “the fastest growth in the G7” (technically true but only because its economy collapsed further in the pandemic); that the government has cut crime by 14 per cent (actually it’s gone up 14 per cent — theft went down, largely due to lockdowns), and that “more people [are] in work now than before the pandemic began” (when you include the self-employed, numbers are down 600,000). That’s before his false insinuation that Labour leader Keir Starmer was involved in the failure to prosecute paedophile Jimmy Savile.
You can’t do political debate like this. Munira Mirza, No 10’s policy chief, cited the “inappropriate and partisan reference” to Savile as her reason for quitting. These undignified untruths are why, within weeks or possibly a couple of months, Tory MPs will take a stand against Johnson: you could call it the Porky Pie Plot.
When your most vocal loyalist is culture secretary Nadine Dorries, it’s time to go. Instead Johnson hangs round, a guest unable to realise that the dinner party ended an hour ago. We could open another bottle, or alternatively he could just bugger off?
He’ll be fine. The Telegraph will have him back. What about the rest of us? The city of Rotterdam is considering dismantling a historic bridge so that Jeff Bezos’s superyacht, built in its shipyards, can reach the sea. The bridge could be rebuilt, just as it was. If only British democracy could be so easily adjusted for the passing through of Johnson’s 417ft superego. Instead it has smashed through the structures. Good riddance.