Boris Johnson’s audacious decision to act as judge and jury on his own misdemeanours by changing the ministerial code has understandably brought protests of incomprehension by the public. But it is just another absurdity of our constitution, which as far as it was designed at all seems to have been the work of several 18th-century gentlemen after an unusually good lunch and several bottles of port.
Its shortcomings have been recognised for years, but were usually explained away in that smug way we English have as just one of our lovable eccentricities, which Johnny Foreigner could never be expected to understand. Neither of course could the British public, but then they have never much counted.
Those shortcomings have best been described by Lord Peter Hennessy, the constitutional historian and surely the best candidate for the top job if ever we managed to become a republic. Lord Hennessy had until recently been a fan of our unwritten constitution, and Prospect says of him: “He understands that the constitution can get out of kilter, but has, at least until now, always maintained that the ‘knicker elastic’ of code and convention will eventually snap back into place if stretched too far.”
But he sees that, in the matter of knicker elastic, this time we may be facing embarrassment. His theory is that lamentably we have the “good chaps” system of government, where all MPs are assumed to be gentlemen, and their honour should never be questioned. (Apologies if you read that while drinking your tea, but the stains will wipe off the wallpaper, never fear.) Because all MPs are gentlemen, goes the theory, it would be repugnant to consider sanctions which might be applied in the event that one of them falls by the wayside. In fact, it would impugn their honour even to contemplate the eventuality.
So in effect, the only rules are those that MPs apply to themselves, and if those applying the rules are also those culpable of breaking them, then there are actually no rules at all.
Sir Bernard Jenkin is the MP for Harwich and North Essex. He is also a member of the Commons Committee on Standards, at whom the prime minister is presently cocking a snook by changing the rules so any decision against him will have no teeth. Sir Bernard is a man used to taking himself seriously. Will he still be supporting the prime minister after this?
With publication of the Sue Gray report at last, there came what had been the expected allegations of attempts by No. 10 to interfere with its contents – and the not quite denials of anything of the sort. It quickly boiled down to tales from inside No. 10 that the report was “looked at” by the prime minister’s chief of staff Steve Barclay, also MP for North East Cambridgeshire. Those inside sources claim he requested changes. In fact a study of the IT by those who understand these things apparently shows that changes were made to the document after it had been delivered to No. 10.
It is of course the business of the voters of that constituency who they elect as their MP. But imagine if you will a man who might interfere in a crucial independent report into misconduct in public office, a serious offence, and what calculations must be going through his mind. One surely has to ask whether this is really the man you would choose to represent you in Parliament.
“If it turns that the rules were broken then we should apply exactly the same rules to civil servants and elected politicians as to the rest of us. My constituents are quite right to feel a sense of outrage if the rules were flouted at a time all of us and our families were going to such lengths to obey them.”
So wrote Jerome Mayhew MP (Broadland) in December. The good people of Broadland await Mr Mayhew’s condemnation of the prime minister and his letter of no confidence.
Here is the MP for South East Cambridgeshire, Lucy Frazer, who is also the financial secretary to the treasury. We last met her during a never explained apparent conflict of interest involving government contracts. These days she is trotted out as part of that contingent of vacuous self-servers on the front bench who are required to make complete fools of themselves by claiming black is white, night is never known to follow day, and Boris Johnson is not a liar.
Will Quince MP (Colchester) says he continues to support the prime minister, in spite of Partygate. “I support the PM and the Chancellor as we deliver on the priorities of the British people.” Those priorities presumably include breaking the law, hypocrisy, holding drunken parties at No.10, fighting and throwing up, and leaving empty bottles in the waste paper baskets for the cleaners to clear up in the morning.
We gather he may have misjudged what is important to his voters, who it seems are growing restless. But another test of quite how accurately Mr Quince has his finger on the pulse of his town: last week, like Tom Hunt, he voted against a windfall tax on energy companies, because his government hated it and it was one of Labour’s ideas. So dismissing that idea as absurd was presumably one of the priorities of the British people.
But to Mr Quince’s discomfort, his government has now changed the policy. Down at the Muckrakers we wait with glee to see what catastrophically embarrassing excuse Mr Quince will find to change his mind.
After the chancellor declared this week that the government would introduce a windfall tax on energy companies, Tom Hunt. MP for Ipswich, was swift to applaud the move, writing on social media that “I have been calling for a long time for a windfall tax”.
Just a few days earlier, before the chancellor admitted he had changed his mind, Mr Hunt had voted down an opposition amendment calling for *checks notes* a windfall tax.
The lesser spotted Richard Bacon, as the South Norfolk MP is becoming known, has in fact become more common in recent weeks. He is mostly seen around political middens, and is known for that familiar call: “Whataboutery! Whataboutery!” It is believed the cry was originally intended to scare off predators, but these days only serves to attract the meejah, who can spot the genus imbecilicus even across a crowded No. 10 party. Thus exposed, the traditional tweedy camouflage of the lesser spotted Bacon no longer works.
Other predators are now drawn to him, and it is here that he is at his most vulnerable. Both the blue and the red necked voter, usually docile and rarely seen, may easily turn on the Bacon once they see him as he really is.
John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) is the latest MP in our area to declare he has lost confidence in the prime minister. He is interesting – a phrase his mother will probably cut out and stick in a scrap book – because of his constituency. His part of Essex might be expected to be among the last to be persuaded against Boris Johnson’s charms. Yet it seems unlikely that he decided to make his views known without at least a cursory attempt to test the waters.
The latest YouGov poll shows that, of 88 key Tory-Labour battleground seats held by the Tories, they would lose all but three. Those losses would include Boris Johnson’s seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, where there is a fall in Tory support of 15 percent.
Four of the seats the Tories would lose in this scenario are in this region: Peterborough, Ipswich, Norwich North and Watford. But what of the Liberal Democrats? I hear you cry. In East Anglia they are often better placed to oust the Tories, and have high hopes of winning seats across Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire.
Last week, Pecksniff reported on what was described as “almost a coup d’état” by the controlling Tory group on Norfolk County Council. Changes meant that transparency seems likely to be severely curtailed, including the removal of the council’s version of prime minister’s questions. Instead, the leader of the council, Andrew Proctor, will simply make a statement.
Opposition councillors were in uproar at the proposed changes. But now it seems they are all the work of the council’s director of governance, Helen Edwards – though she admits Mr Proctor had made “suggestions”. It also seems that discussions on the proposed changes only involved the governing Tory group, with most opposition councillors having no knowledge of what was afoot.
Ms Edwards acknowledges that cross-party groups have been used in the past, but dismisses their efficacy on the grounds that they have rarely reached consensus. So on these grounds they are apparently to be abandoned. If the Tories can’t have agreement to all their proposals, they simply won’t discuss them.
Ms Edwards is of course not an elected councillor, so may not be entirely au fait with the principles of democracy. But the idea is to acknowledge that there will always be dissenting voices, and to give them a platform. This seems a principle under some pressure at the moment, not only at Norfolk County Council but among Tory controlled councils across Norfolk.
Ms Edwards, by the way, has also been given charge of the complaint by Mr Proctor about opposition councillors’ walk-out regarding the decision to discontinue school meal vouchers over Easter. We await that outcome with interest.
There were also dark tales of another attempted coup, this time involving the former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove. A cache of embarrassing emails have been leaked – it is supposed by Russia: comforting to know they can read MI6 correspondence whenever they wish – and seem to show that Sir Richard was involved in a murky plot to replace Theresa May with Boris Johnson. As we would hope Sir Richard might know, what with being in the trade and all, this sounds suspiciously like treason. But then, like to many of those who espouse to lead us, it seems Sir Richard isn’t the tastiest caper in the cannelloni. A prominent East Anglian member of the twitterati, LibDemTim, has met Sir Richard, and being an aficionado of John Le Carré has les mots justes: “Richard Dearlove is very much Percy Alleline and not at all George Smiley”.