The Blue Funk

The Sue Gray Report and the Metropolitan Police (Met) investigation are not quite what they seem. I invite the reader to look beyond the deflection, the fake news, the red herrings, the smoke and mirrors; the choreographed Agenda we are invited to debate, and look behind all that, to the reality being hidden in plain sight. This is not a matter of Civil Service investigations, or the Police or even the Law; in our Constitution this is a matter first and foremost, for politics not law and it is the politics that the Government is trying, and failing to evade.

Why is there a Sue Gray Report? The Sue Gray Report was the creation of the PM and the Government, when the Downing Street operation was faced with the gross failures of the executive being revealed to the public, which Gray describes in the ‘update’ as: “failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of No 10 and the Cabinet Office at different times” (Cabinet Office Report; 31st January, 2021: General findings, iii, p.7).

Gray does not name those responsible for this leadership (she names nobody in this ‘update’), but we need not look far to find the person ultimately responsible for leadership here. It isn’t a secret. For the avoidance of doubt the leader responsible for all these operations in Downing Street, which includes politicians, Spads and elite Civil Servants reporting to him; is the Prime Minister. The PM is neither a guest nor tourist in his own Executive, and only he can establish the “culture” of Downing Street; which is the instrument through which, day and daily, he leads the country, his way. If he doesn’t establish the culture of his executive, then we may draw the conclusion that he is in office, but not in power; in which case who is in power?

This problem of obvious Prime Ministerial responsibility for the executive culture in Downing Street is one which the Cabinet is keen to deflect onto the responsibility of someone else, anyone else; with the Civil Service as the only obvious ‘fall-guy’ within the walls of Downing Street; and possibly the Met, which has – whatever its many faults – like the Civil Service been placed by Government in an invidious and impossible position here. Neither the Civil Service nor the Met can win; they can only lose, or disappear into irrelevance.  Unfortunately none of these Conservative Government ploys against subordinate institutions stands up to scrutiny; and the problem is not capable of being explained away by Conservative quibbling or knit-picking about the nature of leadership, or the craven desire of Conservatives to keep the Glory of leadership and delegate the responsibility and the failure of their leadership onto others; in order to make cowardly, bullying, but essentially weak leadership appear publicly credible.

The catastrophic political outcome for Government and our institutions we are now facing in Parliament isn’t an accident; it is what happens when you give someone as irresponsible, unreliable and given to hubris as Johnson, responsibility for an office he is not fit to hold. The ultimate responsibility for this rests alone in the hands of the Conservative Party: a Party of such poor fundamental corporate judgement it chose Johnson to lead it; and the Government has constructed a Downing Street investigation process that was intended solely to relieve Party and Government of any apparent responsibility for the outcome of the investigation and, equally important to give the public appearance of Party or Government having no responsibility whatsoever for the  events or decisions following from the process. All of these impossible responsibilities fell instead on Sue Gray and the Civil Service by design, in spite of the fact the civil Service does not have the authority for this role in our Constitution; and in a final irony, the responsibility eventually fell on the Met, by accident.

The problem with the Sue Gray Report is that Sue Gray should never have been placed in the invidious, unconstitutional position the Government had chosen as a solution they knew was not designed to decide the issue, but to evade it or at least delay it. The government knew beforehand that constitutionally the only way to bring a PM to account, and to remove him from office if necessary is within Parliament, where it alone belongs; the Crown-in-Parliament alone is sovereign, and able to take the decision, if the PM will not resign of his own volition. No Civil Servant has the power to bring a PM to account: Sue Gray, after all, reports to the PM, and the Report was never intended to do more than determine the ‘facts’. So badly has this been designed and executed by the Government, Cabinet and executive, that even now the facts remain undetermined, officially: but the facts are known, and the Political management of the issue has already spiralled out of control. The Government knew that given that power in Parliament is absolute and is determined by he or she who holds the majority in the House of Commons; this matter can only be resolved, in the end, by Conservative MPs and their support for their leader. There is where responsibility, and ultimately responsibility for this mess, finally rests. The buck stops with Conservative MPs: nowhere else.

There is no doubt that the Met never wished to be involved in the matter, for obvious reasons. Only a week ago the Met wanted nothing to do with it, understandably given its constitutional exposure in such an overtly political predicament; and even with the Met being well represented in Downing Street on security duty, and therefore well-placed to know what was going on. Nevertheless, this is far, far beyond the authority and ‘paygrade’ of the Commissioner, who has acted like a rabbit in the headlights, as soon as the Conservative Government’s desperate attempts to ‘pass the buck’ ended with the unintended consequence of the Sue Grade fudge solution, itself ending with the matter being passed to Cressida Dick, who by then was bereft of a chair when the music stopped. This latest bungle in consequence of the actions of an invertebrate Cabinet, from the beginning refusing to take responsibility for its own PM and his failures, and in a Blue Funk, they chose the Sue Gray route that they thought offered prevarication, and a Report that must come back first to the PM, with the expectation it could be managed adroitly into the long grass from there; which indeed, albeit chaotically has served to give Johnson and the Whips a great deal more time to politically pressurise wavering MPs to support the PM.

In spite of the PM’s irresponsibility and failure, the Cabinet continues to bungle and prevaricate, with Government and Parliament reduced to farce, and public ridicule being heaped on multiple institutions. In spite of all that, and because the PM and government in office have so much prerogative power, the Conservative Party, even in hopeless chaos has largely achieved its aim; delay, prevarication and the calculated creation of public confusion. The distinguished legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg QC has written this about the Met Investigation: “Realistically, it may be a year or more before Gray’s updated report can be published. Although the ‘investigative process’ could be completed within a matter of months, there will then be pressure on Gray not to prejudice any criminal proceedings”. (Rozenberg, ‘A Lawyer Writes’; 31st January). Rozenberg goes on to suggest that these proceedings “are most likely to involve fixed penalty notices or hearings in the magistrates’ court and they are not likely to be influenced by anything Gray may say. But I fear she will be prevailed on to wait until the entire criminal process is concluded.” Notice that these remarks may suggest that the decision not to publish the Sue Gray Report in full now may not, in fact be a requirement in law. This seems unclear, at best but like everything else is being reduced to impenetrable fog through Conservative efforts to  abuse, confuse or disrupt public understanding of the issues at stake. Rozenberg reminds us that Sue Gray was “asked” not to publish more than minimal references to the Met investigated ‘gatherings’; remembering here that gatherings do not evade the regulations, whether or not they were ‘parties’ (Sue Gray refers to the Met request ambiguously as her “appropriate” response to the need not to prejudice the process; thus it is not entirely clear what is the status of the Met request or requirement; see Cabinet Office Report; 14, p.5). The idea that this issue is about “parties” alone, however is the biggest red-herring of all.

The problem of Conservative MPs is now this: the Cabinet and Whips are determined to support the PM (and put enormous pressure on MPs to support him by defending the indefensible, which requires them now to commit to the PM, by compromising themselves); they all know there is no ready, immediate, credible alternative PM in the Conservative Party obvious to all, so manifestly poor is the quality of the Cabinet (or Johnson would already have gone). The Conservative MPs who wish to remove Johnson fear they have nowhere else to go. This I believe better reveals the depth of the problem the Conservative Party faces. It brought it on itself; but this does not look like justice.

The real issues are deeper still. Does Government represent everyone in the country? Are all subject to uniform application of the law; or has  Covid and the consequences of the pandemic and the tragedy in so many family lives only served to reveal to the public, by accident, a terrible truth about Conservatism and government in our neoliberal society; that Government is only there to serve not the Polity, not everyone; but solely the faction (and its supporters), who can manage to fiddle a majority in Parliament, and cling on to it, no-matter-what for the sake solely of the governing political faction and its vested interests, not only through law, or with some face-saving vestige of integrity, or even jovial charm; but by any means, fair or foul?

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Comments (14)

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  1. JP58 says:

    The Met have acted out of self interest.
    They did not want to investigate initially as they realised this was political and held this line until last week when they received Sue Gray report. I can only imagine that when they read contents of report they realised it was going to look really bad that they had allowed this to happen and never investigated. Dick then decided it was in Met’s interest to be seen to investigate but more importantly they could also delay (indefinitely) the final report’s publication which would help reduce damage to Met’s reputation. A side effect is it helps PM which helps Dick personally. There was no reason that the police investigation could not have waited until the full report was published. Dick put the Met and her interests above the countries interests – much like Johnson then. So Dick’s claim that the Met police without fear or favour has as much validity as Johnson’s claims about knowledge of parties.
    It is pathetic and the sooner Johnson, Dick and the senior Civil Servants involved are chucked out of office better for the rest of us.

  2. MBC says:

    You’re right about the spineless Cabinet. Running around like headless chickens. Inexperienced third-raters. No leadership amongst them, just self-interested careerists and Brexshit ideologues. The statesman class was ejected. Their amateur attempts at reshaping the country according to Brexshit ideology and not national need are creating chaos. They had no plan for when we left the EU.

    There’s no obvious successor. All are too afraid to step into the Big Man’s shoes. That seems to be the main reason for supporting him. Nobody else wants the job. The Tories are riven with factions. A poisoned chalice. Everyone for him or herself.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    Apparently there was a Private Member’s Bill from 2001 with the intention of (amongst other things) removing Crown immunity from the Prime Minister:–.htm
    I guess it was never made law. According to Wikipedia, the MP who proposed the Bill subsequently attacked Tony Blair’s ‘presidential’ rule (from the Sofa Cabinet days, I presume). UK government Ministers still seem to be shielded from certain legal proceedings under Crown Immunity.

    Explanatory note 8 says (sexist language and all):
    “Clause 6 invests the Prime Minister with almost all the surviving prerogative powers of the Crown, but not the dissolution or prorogation of Parliament. The Prime Minister’s use of these powers must be linked to the discharge of any of the functions set out in Clause 3. Subsection (2) and Schedule 1 would allow him to use certain specified powers under delegated authority from Her Majesty, and to accept the consequent responsibility. Subsection (3) denies to the Prime Minister any legal immunity attached to the Crown. Subsection (4) requires the Prime Minister to report any use of Prerogative powers to the House of Commons within 7 days, unless the Speaker agrees that such reporting would prejudice national security, the administration of justice or the prevention and detection of serious crime.”

    1. John S Warren says:

      Very well made point. The Bill did not even reach second reading. The crucial point is that few people realise that the PM’s powers depend critically on his/her capacity to exercise enormous (and very ill understood) ‘Crown prerogative powers’ that in our antiquated, dysfunctional constitution have long passed from the monarch to Parliament, and rest now with the PM, responsible only to Parliament dependent solely on his capacity to command a majority in the Commons (‘personal intergirty’ depends on anachronistic conventions); and through the PM’s office these enormous powers are wielded out of sight or effective public scrutiny. This is reality.

      1. John S Warren says:

        There are only two points to be made about this bizarrely muddled comment.

        1) I have no idea who @John S Warren is; and not only do I not generally find anonymous comments persuasive (save when a required disguise by a genuine ‘whistleblower’); but @John S Warren is not even an anonymous name. The reason for my doubt is that I do not find it convincing when the person promoting his/her opinion is not prepared to stand behind it, even with their own name. Why should I take such abject lack of confidence in their opinion serious;y? Furthermore, Please do not claim anyone can make up their name; they can, but this merely makes the position worse, because it is merely an invitation to disbelieve the worth of everyone and everything. I do not think this particular convention of using a twitter convention as a name merits publication; but I acknowledge that is entirely the Editor’s prerogative.

        2) “This is a fair interpretation of the current constitutional arrangement, but it isn’t entirely accurate.” I have no idea what this absurd construction even means; and given the argument, it is difficult to care. The references to the ‘common law’ etc., are just gobbledygook. Here is what the leading constitutional jurist and longstanding authority, AV Dicey wrote about the British Constitution: “Under all the formality, the antiquarianism, the shams of the British constitution, there lies latent an element of power which has been the true source of its life and growth. This secret source of strength is the absolute omnipotence,[34] the sovereignty, of Parliament. As to the mode in which King, Lords, and Commons were to divide the sovereign power between themselves there have been at different times disputes leading to civil war; but that Parliament—that is, the Crown, the Peers, and the Commons acting together—is absolutely supreme, has never been doubted. Here constitutional theory and constitutional practice are for once at one. Hence, it has been well said by the acutest of foreign critics that the merit of the English constitution is that it is no constitution at all. The distinction between fundamental articles of the constitution and laws, between statutes which can only be touched (if at all) by a constituent assembly, and statutes which can be repealed by an ordinary Parliament—the whole apparatus, in short, of artificial constitutionalism—is utterly unknown to Englishmen. Thus freedom has in England been found compatible at crises of danger with an energy of action generally supposed to be peculiar to despotism. The source of strength is, in fact, in each case the same. The sovereignty of Parliament is like the sovereignty of the Czar. It is like all sovereignty at bottom, nothing else but unlimited power; and, unlike some other forms of sovereignty, can be at once put in force by the ordinary means of law. This is the one great advantage of our constitution over that of the United States.” (AV Dicey, ‘England’s Case Against Home Rule’ i.e., against Irish Home Rule, Ch.VIII).

        You are wasting my time, and everyone else.

        1. John S Warren says:

          @ John S Warren. You return in order to claim an incoherent statement wasn’t incoherent. You provided no evidence that what I wrote was not accurate, but offered red-herrings around the ‘common law’ as a feeble rationalisation about an utterly pointless comment.

          Why have I wasted more of my time and a time waster?

          Because I take personal offence at a time-waster with such little confidence in their opinion, that not only do you hide behind a pseudonym to make pointless observations; but you have the contemtible audacity to use my name to quibble with me about precisely nothing of any value to anyone, save your indulgence of your own vacuous hot air. At least have the decency to use some other pseudonym, and I will be more than happy to ignore you altogether.

        2. John S Warren says:

          Your reference to the common law in the constitutional context was completely irrelevant; but you know that, or you just fail to understand the subject. You are now attempting to prolong this discussion endlessly for no good reason; but I think I now recognise your signature.

          Stop using my name as a pseudonym. The ‘@’ is only a reference in Twitter, and not the identifier of a commenter. It has no standing here; here it is merely insulting, outrageous and cowardly. You have no entitlement to use my name as if it was yours in this egregious way – and now in three comments failing to even to recognise that you have breached basic rules of courtesy; still less an apology.

        3. Stop using this as a name it is confusing and disruptive.

          Posters will be asked to use their own name for their own comments. If you don’t your comment will be deleted, if you persist you will be banned.

          There will be no discussion of this process, no yellow cards issued.

          This is a simple instruction which I’ll incorporate in the rules and guidelines for users and re-publish.

        4. @ Bella Caledonia Editor says:

          Looks like I’m going to be banned.

          1. That’s certainly your choice. I couldn’t be any clearer.

    2. Wul says:

      To Sleeping Dog,

      Very interesting, your point about attempts to mitigate the “presidential” type powers that Crown immunity confers on the PM.

      Would this explain Rees-Mogg’s comments, (dating back a few years but recently repeated) that we in the UK “are moving to a more presidential style of leadership”? He also said that “a new PM needs a new mandate”. This seems to locate all power with the leader rather than party. Perhaps this style of Government would suit Rees-Mogg and his type perfectly?

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Wul if one believes (or purports to believe) in the Great Man (Occasionally Woman) View of History, then appointing one as a Great Leader is at least consistent, if perplexingly so frequently disappointing. Although Leadership may just be a convenient myth for some. In the history of the British Empire we can see both traditions: for example in the obsession with finding hierarchy in subject cultures and rounding up/assassinating ‘ringleaders’, but also in the imposition of puppet leaders and pursuance of power aims by secretive cabals (although these may derive authority from monarch). Incidentally, there is a fascinating account of the obsession of wiping out ‘leaders’ in Kill Chain: Drones and the Rise of High-Tech Assassins by Andrew Cockburn.

        Yet if you analysed the actual decisions of even the most highly-rated leaders by British opinion polls (Churchill, Henry V maybe), you will find egregious errors, war crimes, hubris, teeming incompetence, credit snatching, fickle fortune, foul favouritism, vile vices, unhelpful prejudices, the Dark Triad, and vast delegation and reliance on others (not least one’s opponents). I think it was Marina Hyde who put the reality most succinctly recently: these leaders are honoured by their tribes simply because they won the important stuff. Leaders who didn’t (even if they performed better) were sacrificed and historically maligned. Far less dangerous to elites to propose (or arrange) a leadership change than a systematic one. Problem with leadership… needs more leadership! etc. Although apparently never more accountability for those that raise up and support the Leader (cue teary acts of public disappointment).

        But you cannot rationally construct a political system on the basis of hindsight of the results of future occupants of office.

        The rotten reality is that the foreign policy of the British Empire remains almost entirely outside the democratic realm, and in the purview of that non-removable Leader, the Queen-and-successors.

      2. @ Wul says:

        Rees-Mogg is right: over the past sixty years or so, we’ve moved constitutionally from being a parliamentary democracy to being more of a presidential democracy, with greater and greater sovereign power being returned to the Crown and its office of Prime/First Minister. Parliament needs to resist this power-shift.

        But don’t you think Nicola carries the presidential mantle in Edinburgh so much better than Boris does in London? In fact, isn’t the current complaint against Boris as PM that his conduct falls short of that which befits his presidential role?

  4. SleepingDog says:

    It seems that some people wish to avoid sanctions for breaking the social contract by “if I can’t be named, I can’t be shamed”. Democratic and philosophical dialogues require names (not necessarily given birth-names) partly to detect/deter bad actors and sophists, partly to associate parties (not primarily formal political parties) with positions. For anyone with a passing acquaintance with Western philosophy, the reasons that different interlocutors in Socratic dialogues should be obvious:

    Your MP’s speeches are not anonymous, you can check what they said (albeit with some clean-up) on Hansard.

    Likewise, the named rats leaving the Tory sinking ship are making a similar calculation to those staying. Their actions and words each way will stick to them.

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