It was quite the contrast. At the first hint of antisemitism within the Labour party, Keir Starmer unceremoniously sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey as shadow education secretary. No ifs, no buts, no special pleadings, no final warnings. A party leader determined to put the equivocation of the Corbyn era behind him and taking decisive action when required. It was all rather old-school politics.
Then there was the moral vacuum that passes for the current Conservative party. Having already crossed every red line in a desperate attempt to hang on to Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson is now extending the same largesse to his housing secretary. If Robert Jenrick had a hint of decency he would long since have resigned. If Boris had a hint of decency he would have sacked him. But the Tories are now so compromised they just dig in and hope the country has a short memory. They may be disappointed in that.
When you’re fighting for your political career, the very least you’d hope for is another cabinet minister to rally to your defence on the morning’s media round. But Robert “Honest Bob” Jenrick had to make do with Nadhim Zahawi, a junior business minister whose rise to middle management owes more to unquestioning loyalty to whomsoever he needs to be unquestioningly loyal – there was a time when he was one of David Cameron’s biggest cheerleaders – than on ability. Fair to say, it was an awkward 90 minutes for all concerned which raised rather more questions about Honest Bob than it answered.
Zahawi started by saying there was nothing to see here. Honest Bob had given a full account of his dealings with the one-time pornographer Richard Desmond’s Westferry planning application in the Commons the day before – an account that had been in parts contradicted by documents released later in the day – and that the prime minister had full confidence in his housing secretary. Then Boris could hardly say anything else, given that a matey photo of the prime minister with an arm round Dirty Des had emerged overnight.
It was case closed, said Zahawi hopefully. The BBC’s Justin Webb, LBC’s Nick Ferrari and TalkRadio’s Julia Hartley-Brewer all begged to differ. Perhaps we could just run through the sequence of events just three more times to see if we could clear up why everyone except a handful of people inside No 10 thought something dodgy had taken place. Perhaps Boris and Classic Dom’s sense of smell had still not returned after catching the coronavirus and they had failed to detect the whiff of sleaze.
Nadhim started to sound sweaty. He had banked on being asked to explain why allowing a whole load of people to get pissed in pub car parks was an important step towards maintaining physical distance and reducing the rate of coronavirus infection. Instead he was forced to lumber to Honest Bob’s rescue, a task made even harder by the fact that his two synapses only rarely connect.
So let’s start with the fundraising dinner. Was it just a total coincidence that Desmond, who was relying on the support of the housing secretary to approve a controversial planning application that had already been turned down by Tower Hamlets, happened to be sitting at the same table as Honest Bob? “Oh yes,” said Zahawi. Honest Bob didn’t have a clue who he would be sitting next to. In fact, he made a point of never asking who was going to be at any meeting he attended because he enjoyed the element of surprise.
Then we came to the four-minute video of the development that Dirty Des had shown Honest Bob on his phone at the dinner. Ah! That was easily explained. Honest Bob had thought he was being shown a highlights clip of classic Readers’ Wives. And the housing secretary giving Dirty Des his personal mobile phone number? That was the kind of thing Honest Bob did all the time. Off the top of his head, he couldn’t think of anyone who didn’t have the minister’s number.
That though was just the aperitif. Because after the dinner Dirty Des had texted honest Bob to ask him to get a bend on as he didn’t want to give the Marxists at Tower Hamlets £50m to help some of the most deprived communities in the country. Only then had Honest Bob replied that maybe they shouldn’t be having this conversation as it might look as if he was giving him preferential treatment. Which rather implied that was precisely what was going on. Then there had been silence until Honest Bob had rushed through the application, against all professional advice, the day before Dirty Des would have been liable for the £50m.
“It was all about viability,” Zahawi said limply. There’s something rather pathetic about a politician who doesn’t know when to stop digging. Dirty Des wouldn’t have made as much profit if he had been asked to build a few more affordable homes that would be totally unaffordable to most people in the borough, so it was best to give the go ahead to the scheme that netted the developer the biggest return.
Nadhim was sorry that Dirty Des had only made a £12,000 donation for a £50m saving. Still a benchmark of sorts had been set. If you live in Doncaster and stood to make a £50,000 profit, the Tories would be happy to nod it through for £12.
Zahawi wasn’t the only one in search and rescue mode. There had been indications that after the first meeting of the liaison committee – the supergroup of select committee chairs that gets to interrogate the prime minister twice a year – that Bernard Jenkin, the committee’s chair who had been personally parachuted in by Boris himself, might not be the tame patsy he had first appeared.
But on the Today programme Bernie was keen to correct the impression that he might have some kind of independent thought. When he had called for a review into the government’s handling of the pandemic, he didn’t mean it to be an inquiry into finding out any awkward facts of how the government could have avoided achieving the highest death rate in the world.
“A review should not be about looking back,” he explained. Which was odd because most people understand the word review to mean precisely that. “It should be a rapid, forward-looking assessment of national preparedness.” So not so much a review as a preview. Not for the first time this morning, it was looking like the government was hell-bent on taking the country for fools.