It was a shit job, but someone had to do it. And it was just Kwasi Kwarteng’s bad luck that he drew the short straw of having to defend the government’s latest sleaze-bath on the morning media round. After all, it was a foregone conclusion that any hopes the business secretary might have had of getting a word in edgeways about climate change would be blown out of the water by Boris Johnson’s extraordinary decision to enforce a three-line whip on Conservative MPs to get Owen Paterson off the hook.
Some ministers take these punishment beatings in good grace. As part of the job, even. Not Kwarteng. He was sullen, grumpy and dismissive right from the start of his interview with Nick Robinson on Radio 4’s Today programme, claiming the government had been thinking of changing the rules on appeal for the past 11 and a half years. So why had they waited until the vote on Paterson’s suspension to debate it in the Commons? Kwasi tried to ignore the question.
So what would you like instead, given that you’ve had so long to consider it? Robinson asked. “Er …,” Kwarteng dithered, hoping something intelligent would come to him. Some hope. A cross-party committee of MPs, he said eventually. But that’s precisely the system that’s already in place.
It was now dawning on Robinson that he was talking to a halfwit. Yes, said Kwarteng. Only this time they wanted a cross-party committee with a majority of Tory MPs who could be relied on to exonerate any Conservatives found guilty of multiple counts of paid advocacy. A committee that would make allowances for MPs who were genuinely too stupid to understand the rules. Or why businesses might choose to bung them an extra £100,000 for their services. Paterson hadn’t been paid for his intellect. He had been paid for his stupidity.
“We’re showing very high standards in government,” Kwarteng insisted. Oh really, said Robinson. Then how do you account for the prime minister’s refusal to sack Dominic Cummings for his Barnard Castle safari? Or a former housing minister’s decision – later deemed unlawful – to award a planning permission to the Tory donor “Dirty Des” that saved him £45m? Or Priti Patel being found in breach of the ministerial code for bullying? Kwasi mumbled something about climate change.
Robinson tried to make things easier for the business minister. Could he list even one thing Boris Johnson had done to deliver higher integrity and probity in public life? “Brexit,” Kwarteng replied. You couldn’t fault his mindless loyalty. Even if you could his intelligence. There was a long pause – dead air, as everyone paused to remember the lies that had been told to deliver Brexit. Not to mention the illegal prorogation of parliament and the signing of the Northern Ireland protocol in bad faith.
This wasn’t the end of Kwarteng’s discomfort because moments later he was being asked pretty much the same questions by Kay Burley on Sky. Only by now Kwasi was seriously unravelling. Kwasi unplugged. So he doubled down. The commissioner for standards would have to resign, he said. Concrete boots and tossed in the sea. It was outrageous for her to have dared to find a Tory MP guilty of anything. Kwarteng fell silent once more. At least the prime minister would send him a congratulatory text for saying out loud what he was privately thinking.
Or perhaps not. The first sign of a change in tone came during business questions in the Commons after the shadow leader of the house, Thangam Debbonaire, had recapped the previous day’s proceedings. The government was guilty of corruption for trying to change the rules on MPs’ conduct retrospectively and Labour would play no role in the sham committee the Tories were planning to establish to replace the one that had served the Commons perfectly well for years.
In reply, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who had possibly been listening to Lord Evans, the chair of the committee for standards in public life, also giving the Tories both barrels at an event hosted by the Institute for Government, announced a partial climbdown. Though as with everything Rees-Mogg does, it was done without shame, without apology and with utter condescension. A primetime advert for the government’s levelling up agenda.
The whole thing had been a complete misunderstanding by the opposition parties, Rees-Mogg said. The government had thought it blindingly obvious that there was no connection between the Paterson vote and the same one to change the rules on MPs’ behaviour. But Labour had been so stupid that it had managed to conflate the two. So to eliminate confusion, he was not going to proceed with the new rigged committee but was going to try to think of a way to achieve cross-party consensus that didn’t embarrass the government. Chris Bryant drily observed it was a bit late for that but, if it helped, his committee could write a second report by next Tuesday. Though its findings would be the same.
Within an hour this partial U-turn had become a full handbrake turn, with the government announcing there would be a second – unwhipped – vote on Paterson. But the damage had been done. Boris Johnson’s Conservatives were now established as the party of sleaze. They had tried to pull a fast one and had been caught red-handed. That they had now been forced into acting properly was neither here nor there.
One sometimes wonders what it will take for the penny to drop for Tory ministers and MPs. Was Paterson really too stupid not to realise that Boris would dump him if the shit looked like hitting the fan? Boris didn’t even have the courtesy to tell him he was no longer backing him. Owen found out from a journalist when he was in the supermarket. He then did the most gracious and sensible thing he had ever done as a Tory MP. He resigned. Johnson didn’t care one way or the other. Other people only existed as extensions of his narcissism.
Did Kwarteng not wonder if he had been shafted and made to look untrustworthy for no good reason? Did the Tories who had voted with the government not realise their credibility had been trashed for good? That they had made it clear they had no principles that couldn’t be bought off?
The past 24 hours had been peak Boris. Ur Boris. He had done what he always does. There isn’t a friend, wife, family member or colleague whom Bertie Booster doesn’t betray in the end. Or even in the beginning.
A Farewell to Calm by John Crace (Guardian Faber, £9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.