By Matthew Parris
The Times – 18 July 2020
The point about the Mafia is that people must be scared. As Boris Johnson approaches his first anniversary as prime minister next week, he could do worse than remind himself of the 1972 blockbuster, The Godfather. The film brings it home. The important thing is not to be disregarded. You can do some seriously crazy stuff with horses’ heads in victims’ beds but only so long as people can see there’s method in your madness.
Only a year into Mr Johnson’s tenure at Downing Street the outside world has noticed the madness but begins to doubt the method. And once people start deriding you, you’ve lost it. This week’s shenanigans over the chairmanship of the intelligence and security committee provide a gruesome illustration. The ISC is a body of MPs and peers nominated by the Prime Minister in consultation with the leader of the opposition and provides a measure of democratic scrutiny of our spooks. The rule is that it elects its own Chairman.
Instead Johnson tried to impose a Chairman on the newly-appointed committee: Chris Grayling. And failed. A cross-party majority was secured by another of its Tory members, Julian Lewis, who is much better qualified for the role than Mr Grayling. Downing Street responded by expelling Lewis from the parliamentary party, claiming he lied to the whips. I doubt it.
This is just madness. Among those who take these things seriously, the immediate response will have been horror. Then bafflement. And, as I write, bafflement yields to derision. As one former cabinet minister put it,
“There’s nothing worse than being an ineffectual bully”.
Downing Street is now trying to blame the Chief Whip for messing up the whipping, inadvertently admitting there was whipping. So Downing Street wanted this vote whipped.
Let’s not get too deep into the weeds of custom and practice with the ISC. I do realise any Prime Minister is bound to have an interest in who chairs such an important body. The tension between the whole theory of independent committee-work by MPs, and party whips’ discipline, results in a messy and delicate compromise involving nods and winks and a mutual understanding about how far things can be pushed. So it should not shock us if rumour had reached the ears of Tories on the ISC that No 10 would like to see Grayling in the job. But this would have to have been attempted so diplomatically, with Downing Street ready if necessary to yield gracefully, privately and early. Instead Johnson has simply jackbooted his way into a public confrontation, lost it, then tried to kick a respected colleague out of the party.
Was it really Johnson? Or Dominic Cummings, who famously believes backbenchers are pond life and can be disregarded? So far, so Mafia. But it’s no good being a bunch of bullies, twisters and worse if people start to think you are losing command. Colleagues’ attention will start shifting to conjectured successors.
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The stupid scrap with the ISC is not normal, and the whipping (which failed) was shameless. The attempt (which also failed) to bury the ISC’s report on Russian interference was shameless.
[ … ]
If competence shone through then I think the shamelessness would remain an embarrassment that his colleagues would be prepared to suppress. But he’s losing, and the combination of incapacity and shamelessness is beginning to curdle. Boris Johnson’s colleagues see, and for the most part shrug, look away, or bite their tongues. I don’t believe this can last – but then I never thought he’d make it to the top in the first place. I now believe he won’t survive as prime minister through the year ahead – and maybe I’m wrong again. But as long as he lasts, his shamelessness shames Britain.