Mon, 6 March 2023 at 8:06 pm GMT
Tories take their pleasures where they can find them in Westminster these days. Which is why the government benches were surprisingly full for an urgent question on Keir Starmer offering Sue Gray a job as chief of staff. It’s not often Conservative MPs get to occupy the moral bump in the road, so at least 50 or so took to the Commons to vent confected hypocritical outrage. The more sensible stayed away. They pick their fights more carefully.
It goes without saying that the MPs who were present were some of the stupidest to have been elected. But beggars can’t be choosers. The government has to play the hand it has been dealt. There was Priti Patel. I could have sworn she had broken the ministerial code on at least one occasion. And then there were the dozens who had defended Owen Paterson’s right to break lobbying rules. Such outstanding pillars of the community.
Ever since the news broke last Thursday that Labour had offered Gray a job, the Tories have been spitting tacks. Many, like the increasingly spectral Jacob Rees-Mogg, were convinced this was a stitch up. That Starmer and Gray had plotted through lockdown to remove Boris Johnson.
Stop to think this one through a minute. For this to be true, Starmer and Gray would have had to have arranged the parties and somehow made Boris attend them. And get people to photograph them. They had also managed to encourage people to throw up in bins, have sex in cupboards and play Abba loudly in the No 10 flat. Quite the act of coercive control.
All that was then needed was for someone to blow the whistle and for Gray to manoeuvre herself into a position where she would be given the job of investigating the parties. Then she would have to write a report that even the Tories felt went soft on Johnson, as it ignored half the parties he attended, and then rely on 60 ministers subsequently resigning on another matter to force Boris out of No 10. It was all totally mad. A conspiracy theory for the ages. Which is why it appealed to so many Conservative MPs. And Johnson.
Then there were the saner Tories. They just couldn’t understand why a member of the civil service was going to work for Labour. As far as they were concerned, the natural habitat for Gray should have been the Conservatives. One establishment organisation for another. For her to have gone to the opposition – for her to have even considered the idea that Labour may for many people be the new political establishment – just did not compute. So there must have been foul play at work.
Before the urgent question began, Lindsay Hoyle made an announcement. He had received an unprecedented number of requests to grant a UQ from Tory members. All of which had been worded exactly the same. Several Boris devotees blushed guiltily. Others felt no shame. They are a moral vacuum. Of Johnson himself, there was no sign. There never is when there is dirty work to be done on his behalf. But the speaker had decided to allow a UQ from Robert Buckland that concentrated solely on constitutional matters.
The paymaster general, Jeremy Quin, found himself tasked with answering for the government. Though really most of the questions would have been better answered by Labour’s Angela Rayner. After all, it’s only Labour who really knows what’s going on. But in the absence of any clarity, Quin merely observed that the opposition had screwed up on two points. The job hadn’t been cleared by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and Gray hadn’t asked her boss if it was OK to work for Labour.
This was the moral molehill on which the debate would be had. One that all Tories would have happily argued against if it had been their party into whose embrace Gray had fallen. Quin shook his head sadly, affecting a look of deep seriousness. He was disappointed, he said. He felt personally let down. Buckland quickly followed up. He, too, was even more disappointed. A dark day for democracy. If only Gray had done the honourable thing and signed up for the Tories.
Rayner came out fighting. The Tories were riddled with 13 years of sleaze and corruption so it was no wonder Gray had chosen to work with Labour. She wanted a job with an organisation that had scruples. All of which is probably true. Though it didn’t quite explain the appointment process. Other Labour MPs chipped in to say that the Tories had always found Gray to be impartial in the past, and for them to moan now was just political point scoring.
After that, we were then treated to 30 minutes of the shite de la shite of the Tory party.
First out of the blocks, the Moggster. This proved Gray had connived with the socialists over her report into Partygate. A few of the saner Tories held their head in their hands. The last thing they wanted was for Tories to start bringing up Partygate. Rehearsing the facts that the government broke all its own rules while the rest of the country suffered isn’t quite the vote-winner Jakey thinks it is. Every time Partygate gets mentioned, Labour’s lead extends a little more.
Then we got the prize bore, Peter Bone. Even his family must dread him speaking. The civil service was now broken, he declared sotto voce. The lights were going out all over Whitehall. Give us a break. The ethically challenged Lee Anderson questioned Gray’s ethics. She had crossed a line. She should resign. I’ve got news for you. She already has.
Scott Benton was concerned that Gray would snitch on the Tories to Labour. Tell them all the dirty secrets. Er … You’re not supposed to have any, Scottie. Brendan Clarke-Smith was determined to bring up Partygate again. Just because. He couldn’t help himself. Labour had nobbled Gray. Her report was rubbish. Big Bren had just increased Labour’s lead again.
Throughout all this, Quin tried to navigate a safe path through the madness. He just wanted to know when and how Labour had approached Gray. But for reasons best known unto itself, Labour isn’t telling. Starmer had been asked several times on LBC but had refused to say more than “after last October”. You can only imagine the Labour leader must be enjoying this. Give them enough rope and the Tories will find new ways to self-destruct.