Scandal is a motif of extended periods of Tory government. The longer the stretch of uninterrupted Conservative rule, the bigger the scandals tend to get. At the fag end of Harold Macmillan’s premiership in 1963, the most lurid of them was the Profumo affair. The story is well known and can be summarised in two sentences. Jack Profumo was secretary of state for war and shared a lover, Christine Keeler, with a military attache at the Russian embassy. Profumo lied about it to the Commons, was forced to admit to the lie and resigned for committing what was then an unpardonable offence in British politics. All very sensational, but it is what happened next that is most remarkable to the contemporary eye. Profumo did not hang around in politics hoping that the clouds of disgrace would dissipate and he might contrive some kind of comeback. He did not try to worm his way back into government or bag himself a seat for life in the Lords or reinvent himself as a media celebrity. Profumo accepted that he had obliterated his political career, quit parliament, devoted the remainder of his life to charitable endeavours and ultimately secured some rehabilitation of his reputation from these good works.
This penitential model for the shamed minister is not followed by disgraced politicians of the modern era. They do not dress themselves in sackcloth and seek redemption through exemplary service to others. Exhibit number one is Matt Hancock. Lest we forget, he was the health secretary who was caught on his own department’s CCTV exploring how far he could get down the throat of his lover and busting the Covid rules that he had told everyone else to obey to contain a lethal disease. He’s jetted down under to trouser a large sum from an unreality TV show and justifies going absent without leave from Westminster on the grounds that representing his constituents is less important than showing the public “who I am”. Matt, mate, no one is interested in discovering the “real” you. There is no evidence that such a thing exists. I guess he calculated that getting showered with liquid excrement on TV might persuade voters to like him a little more, but you can stuff him with Australia’s entire supply of crocodile cock and it will not assuage the justifiable anger of the relatives of Covid victims. They are not alone in their fury that he is alchemising his disrepute into a payday rumoured to total £400,000.
Our next exhibit is Gavin Williamson, the pound-shop Machiavelli whose one genuine talent was exploiting the neediness of successive Tory leaders by persuading them that he could grub together support in parliament so long as they weren’t squeamish about how he did it. A single cabinet career was one too many for him, but he was on his third when he was forced to resign last week, pursued by complaints of bullying and accusations from a former deputy that he employed “unethical and immoral” methods when he was chief whip.
The only people to be saddened by his removal are Rishi Sunak, who looks like a weak fool for putting “Sir” Gavin in his government, and punters who had laid bets that Suella Braverman would be the first minister to be ejected from the Sunak cabinet. During her initial, brief stint as home secretary, she gave the department’s officials an unanticipated feeling of nostalgia for Priti Patel. Ms Braverman was then forced to quit for security breaches that violated the ministerial code. Did she gracefully retire to reflect on her mistakes from the backbenches? No. After less than a week in the sin bin, she was back in post thanks to a devil’s bargain struck with Mr Sunak when he was desperate to secure the Tory leadership without a contest. One may be an oddity, two a coincidence. Three is a pattern. The slimy antics of Mr Hancock, the revolving disgraces of “Sir” Gavin and the continued presence in high office of Ms Braverman epitomise a culture of shamelessness.
Fear of being shamed used to be an important regulator of the conduct of politicians. And politicians who shamed themselves generally accepted that they had to express their regrets and depart the scene. On the rare occasions when people were given a second chance in cabinet, the usual rule was that they had to face an election before there could be the possibility of a return to the top table. Now there is no transgression so appalling that the perpetrator cannot scheme for a rapid comeback – often successfully.
This culture of shamelessness helps to explain why this protracted period of Tory rule has been splattered with so many and such a variety of scandals from Partygate to lucrative Covid contracts delivered to Tory mates by the crony express. The propensity for long-ruling parties to degenerate was accelerated during the squalid reign of the last-but-one prime minister. The Conservatives broke a threshold that they should never have crossed when they gave the leadership of their party to the moral vacuum called Boris Johnson. Only a few weeks after he was finally prised out of Downing Street for debasing the office of prime minister, he was trying to blag his way back into Number 10. He is under live investigation by the privileges committee for deliberately misleading the Commons, the punishment for which could be his ejection from parliament. Yet he feels entitled to demand a resignation honours list that is longer than those of David Cameron and Theresa May combined. He has reportedly nominated about 20 new peers. Among those he seeks to cloak in ermine are Number 10 underlings who collaborated in his misrule and a pair of Tory donors, one of whom funded a tropical island holiday when he was prime minister. In a classic case of Johnsonian cakeism, he wants to give berths in the Lords to Conservative MPs who stuck with him to the end, but post-date the peerages to after the next election so the Tories don’t have to face the verdict of voters at byelections. There have been dodgy honours lists before, but this sets a new low for boundary trampling. As you would fully expect from Mr Johnson.
This asks a big question about Rishi Sunak. He arrived in Downing Street advertising himself as the disinfectant who would cleanse the Conservatives of the putrefaction of the Johnson years. When he first stood in front of Number 10, Mr Sunak breathed pieties about restoring “integrity, professionalism and accountability” at “every level of government”. That promise has already been deeply sullied by his decision to give cabinet seats to “Sir” Gavin and Ms Braverman. The prime minister will now have to do a lot to persuade us that he is at all serious about standards in government.
I have three suggestions for him to be going on with. First, there should be no further delay in fulfilling his pledge to appoint a new independent invigilator of ministerial ethics, a position that has been vacant since June when the last holder of the office resigned in disgust with Mr Johnson. Mr Sunak should also implement the recommendations of the committee on standards in public life, one of which is that the invigilator should be equipped with powers to initiate investigations into misconduct and announce conclusions without interference from Number 10. Another thing the Tory leader can do – and this would be enormously popular with people of all political tastes – is to make a salutary example of Mr Hancock. For going absent without leave from parliament, he has been deprived of the Tory whip. He will be thinking that this is just a light slap on the wrist and he will be restored as a Tory MP when he returns from Australia, which will allow him to stand as a Conservative candidate at the next election. Mr Sunak can announce that there’s no way back into the Conservative fold for the former health secretary. That would send a message of no tolerance for any MP who so blatantly absconds from their duties in parliament and responsibilities to their constituents.
Then Mr Sunak should tear up Mr Johnson’s shopping list of baubles and peerages for his sugar daddies, courtiers and cronies. Honours are awarded in the name of the crown and with advice from the prime minister. There’s no law that entitles ex-prime ministers to hand out gongs and reserve seats in the upper chamber of the legislature. It’s just a custom. When a custom is grossly abused by a man who was fired in disgrace from Number 10, the custom can and should be overridden.
We know that Mr Johnson is a man without shame. Mr Sunak, how about you?
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer