It’s like stepping into Dr Who’s Tardis and being transported back to the mid-1990s, when a Conservative government was sinking under the accumulating weight of dodgy dealings and its protestations that everything was honest and above board sounded increasingly hollow.
As an avid student of history, Boris Johnson might wince at any comparison between his administration and the enfeebled one led by John Major, but the parallels are striking. The same drip-drip of corrosive allegations about people abusing their position for gain is apparent, and so is the sense that there is something rotten at the heart of Government.
There is, though, one key difference between the two eras that is equally striking – nobody ever accused Mr Major of personal wrongdoing, whereas more and more fingers are being pointed directly at Mr Johnson. That the most accusatory finger-pointing comes from his former right-hand man, Dominic Cummings, makes it only more damaging. His value to Mr
Johnson both politically and personally – until a bitter falling-out – was never disputed.
If anybody doubted the Prime Minister’s dependence upon him, they need only to cast their minds back a little more than a year to Mr Cummings’ lockdown-busting trip to County Durham, and the outcry from both the public and politicians for his sacking. Mr Johnson stood firm, despite the fact that either dismissal or Mr Cummings’ resignation were the proper courses of action. Only a man essential to the workings of his Government was worth sacrificing so much credibility for.
So when Mr Cummings points the finger, the direction he’s indicating has to be worth following. This is the man who was privy to everything, especially the off-the-record stuff that was never officially recorded – the discussions, the emails, the text messages. The accusations could hardly be more damning. “It is sad to see the PM and his office fall so below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves,” he wrote.
Mr Cummings went in equally hard on the question of how improvements to Mr Johnson’s flat in Downing Street were to be paid for, calling them, “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal” and adding that they “almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations”.
Bad enough, but there may be even worse to come if, as claimed at the weekend, Mr Cummings is preparing to tell a committee of MPs next month that the Prime Minister delayed the autumn Covid lockdown, resulting in avoidable deaths.
Although Mr Cummings is the chief prosecution witness in the case against Mr Johnson, he is not the only voice raised in condemnation. The Plymouth MP Johnny Mercer, who resigned as a defence minister last week, left with a parting shot about what was going on: “This is the most distrustful, awful environment I’ve ever worked in, in government.”
Accusing a serving Prime Minister of dishonesty is the most serious of charges, and the attempts at rebuttal by Downing Street have been less than convincing. But shocking though the allegations are, they are somehow not surprising.
Questions about his trustworthiness have dogged Mr Johnson throughout his career, and the allegations over misbehaviour at the heart of Government can be seen as fitting a pattern.
There was a dismissal from an early job in journalism for being dishonest, followed by a sacking as a front-bench opposition spokesman for not telling the truth about a personal relationship. There are still unanswered questions from his time as London Mayor over funds given to a woman who has subsequently claimed to have been Mr Johnson’s mistress. There was his abortive bid for the Conservative leadership when his rival, and now colleague, Michael Gove torpedoed it by claiming he lacked the personal qualities for the job. And then, of course, the bitterness over Brexit, the half-truths told by the leave campaign that Mr Johnson fronted.
All matters of trust, and they have carried over into his premiership. From the moment he won office, the doubt about whether he could be trusted has been a persistent theme.
The pandemic has kept questions about Mr Johnson’s character at bay for a year, but now that it is – mercifully – appearing to recede, they have returned with a vengeance and it is hard to see how they can be swatted away by this most accomplished of communicators. Voters aren’t fools. They can spot dishonesty in a politician a mile off, and see through a Government that isn’t behaving with integrity. They spotted it in the 1990s, and they’re spotting it now. That’s something Mr Johnson ought to be very worried about.