The usual apologists have been excusing Rishi Sunak for breaking the law by not wearing a seatbelt while filming a promotional video in the north west, and for which he has now received a fixed penalty notice.
(Sorry, “apparently breaking the law”, as the reports initially said. Just as I am currently “apparently” looking at a computer screen. And it is “apparently” quite cold outside.)
Scott Benton, the MP for Blackpool, had said any suggestions that the Prime Minister should be prosecuted for breaking the law were “politically motivated”. The local police should be concentrating on other crimes, he said, not this one.
Doubtless he would say the same if the film had shown Keir Starmer, say, or Ed Davey. You decide.
The usual commentators in the client press have already started to rally around, even after the Prime Minister’s admission of guilt. Not important, minor breach of the law, it was a “brief error of judgement” – Number 10’s words – and he has apologised.
Let’s examine why this is actually rather important.
No-one should be above the law
First, it is extremely damaging, in a liberal democracy, for those in charge to appear to be above the law. It corrodes trust, while encouraging the sense that there is not so much one rule for us and one for them, as rules for us and no rules for them. Why bother to vote, if those you elect cannot be held to account?
We don’t expect Kim Jong-un to be pulled over for using his phone when driving. We expect our leaders to be required to obey the same rules that we are bound by. Except that increasingly we shrug resignedly when they are not.
The Sunak seatbelt affair can only be seen in the same context as Nadhim Zahawi’s failure to be held to account for his tax affairs, or Partygate. It breeds cynicism and mistrust, of which we probably have enough already.
(Incidentally, for a forensic account of Zahawi and why what he did was wrong, see this, from a leading tax lawyer who helped bring him into account.)
It is not as if a fine would have been a career-ending event – Sunak has already been fined over Partygate.
Risks bringing police into disrepute
Second, the whole affair would have brought the police into disrepute, if no action had taken place. Lancashire police had said they were “looking into” the alleged offence. Who did they have on the case? Sherlock Holmes? Hercule Poirot? By allowing himself to be filmed breaking the law, Sunak is the equivalent of one of those idiot burglars who get caught because they couldn’t resist waving at the security cameras.
If they had found there was “insufficient evidence” to proceed, we would have concluded two things. One, that the police instinctively know not to prosecute the rich and powerful. Or the alternative, that the rich and powerful can merely pick up the phone and request that any prosecution be dropped, no matter what the evidence. And be obeyed.
I don’t think either of these conclusions would have made the job of the average copper, on his or her beat in Lancashire or elsewhere, any easier.
So instead they backed down, after an attempt to hold the line. Sunak was wrong to do what he did, and he has taken the rap.
Why did it take so long? Why attempt to claim, against the evidence that we could all see, that he was not breaking the law and should not be held to account?
I think they had to try, and I think they then realised it would fail. The spin wouldn’t stick. This time. One gain, then, for public accountability of those in high public office.
Let’s see if it happens again.
(To clarify, yes I do believe Ed Davey or Keir Starmer should be prosecuted in the same circumstances. Or for any other breach of the law.)