“Are you going to resign, minister?” The raw London accent of the late and much missed Paul Lambert, aka Gobby, BBC fixer extraordinaire, would regularly pierce the chill Downing Street air as the latest errant minister trotted up to the door of number ten. Usually errant. On occasions the question would be hurled at an apparently innocent and hence rather startled member of the Government, just to keep them on their toes.
For resignations are an important part of the narrative of British politics. They excite with the promise of catharsis, teach the lesson that even the powerful can be punished, that the overmighty ever teeter on the edge of downfall.
From the other side of that famous black door it is more often seen as a trial of strength, a test of Prime Ministerial resolve and loyalty, ministerial determination to cling to high office, whether indignant or apologetic, occasionally both. Listen hard enough and you can almost hear a layered repetition of PMs down the years “I’m not going to let them win !” Until they – the media – do, when day after relentless day the story stubbornly refuses to leave the front pages.
This time if Gobby was still around to yell at Pritti Patel the answer would be obvious. Not merely ‘no!” but ‘why should I?” The case against her was straight forward, and the verdict clear. It was just when the Prime Minister came to pass sentence that things went awry. It is a distinction of this case that it wasn’t the prisoner in the dock but the judge himself who’s going down.
In a quaint twist the home secretary stays in post but it is the very senior former civil servant and diplomat, Sir Alex Allen, who has been put in a position where he has no alternative but to walk away from his job as the Prime Minister’s advisor on standards. Dignity is not dead.
The clarity of the case is important: it was not always thus. I am afraid I don’t quite recall off the top of my head, the exact reason Peter Mandelson resigned twice, why Charles Clarke went, why David Blunkett had to go. I do remember the difficulty of explaining the complex twists of their cases on the nightly news. Probably with the aid of graphics. They were all something of a paper trail, the alleged wrongdoing buried deep in detail.
That is not true in Pritti Patel’s case. We all know what swearing and shouting sound like. No graphics needed. Bullying is bullying. The minister I heard defending the Home Secretary on the Today programme seemed to suggest she was doing hard job in a difficult department and she didn’t intend to bully. In other words “these things happen”. Bullying is obviously only of significance when things are going swimmingly, and you deliberately set out to behave badly.
As an excuse it’s not even “the dog ate my home work” or “ I was at granny’s funeral” but simply "Can’t be bothered, don’t care. Not listening”. There are distinct echoes of the Government’s rationale when it turned out their incontinent spraying of Covid cash had ignored the normal procurement procedures – "we were in a great hurry, and it was important." Or laying plans to break international law. These are but the latest pieces of evidence that this Government not only doesn’t mind breaking the rules, but feels entitled to do so.
Some of this is understandable, even admirable. The determination not to be driven off course by a squall of headlines, which may last for days but will eventual die down could be seen as keeping an eye on the prize, not the virtual chip wrappers. Boris Johnson’s reluctance to chuck a body off the sledge to halt the wolf pack may not just be a tactic but genuine loyalty.
There’s a lot to be said for questioning the traditional rhythm of politics and pointing out that conventions are just that, not iron laws of nature. But. However. There is a pattern. Johnson’s incarnation as Boris the Bulldozer was forged in the chaos of Parliament indecision over Brexit. Boris the Blade cut the Gordian Knot and he’s been knifing through conventions ever since.
So now he calls on MPs to "Form a square round the Prittster". This may be solid advice when ink pellets are being flung at chums by the Oiks of the Remove. This classic bit of buffoonery seems less appropriate here. I’m generally all for a bit of levity but it does give the impression that he sees this serious misdemeanour as a bit of laugh. Unless I am getting my references wrong and a Kipling poem provides an even less edifying glimpse into the thin red line of the PMs mental landscape.
Gobby would have attempted to crumple up the square, but probably shouted without result.
My headline is a punky pun from the Pistols but the Government seems to be taking its cue from another classic – the Clash’s ‘Cheat’
“Don't use the rules
They're not for you, they're for the fools” Joe sang.
I bow to no one in my love for the band but an angry anthem from the 70s should not be the theme tune of our current Government.