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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