ONE of the requirements of military leadership is integrity. It is regarded as vital: trainee officers at Sandhurst are sacked if found in a lie, as are more senior officers who are discovered to have fiddled their expenses. The British Army may be more priggish than some, but the need for integrity is noted in most military academies. It’s also the case that, as Lord Acton noted, power corrupts, so it’s hardly surprising that our Prime Minister is in a spot of bother. (Acton’s axiom also helps explain the current appalling state of the British Army, as outlined here, a topic to which I shall return another day).
But the people who should really be in the line of fire are the team around Johnson; his flexible relationship with the actualité has been well documented and the Civil Service knew what they were getting as a Prime Minister. Why did they not appoint staff to protect his office and the country from his foibles? If and when the law was being broken, or (as damning in politics) seeming to be broken, why was action not taken? The old saw that ‘advisers advise, ministers decide’ doesn’t apply in the case of law-breaking.
All of which means that Sue Gray’s investigation is extraordinarily challenging: not only does she have to navigate the sensitivities of a civil servant commenting publicly on the actions of a Prime Minister, she’s also investigating the efficacy of her boss, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case. From the stories published so far it seems that the entire Downing Street machine is dysfunctional.
Of course, to the long-suffering public that’s hardly news. We’ve spent two years and £400billion of money we don’t have dealing with what was always a minor health threat. We’ve been committed to the net zero energy transformation that has not been costed, or even checked to see if it’s possible in the timeframes given (for details see my book). To add to this we have an energy price crisis, exacerbated by our heavy reliance on imported gas, growing inflation (and rising energy costs won’t help that), interest rates on the way up (which might stifle growth and will certainly eat into household disposable income) and a looming recession. Oh yes, and a spot of bother in Ukraine. Plus, of course, the Irish border problem and the rest of the not-quite-completed Brexit. It’s a mess.
Of course, we the electorate must shoulder some of the blame: we voted for brazen Boris in preference to crazy Corbyn. But we did so in the belief that the British Civil Service was capable of sound administration. Of course, those were the halcyon, pre-Covid days when we still believed that the NHS was fit for purpose (which included being prepared for new diseases) and that our mainstream media would generally get to the bottom of important issues such as the difference between ‘died of Covid’ and ‘died with Covid’.
We know better now. The government machine is broken. Terminally. There are unlikely to be any quick fixes and none of the likely replacements for Johnson, if indeed he goes, looks to be able to command the respect of Parliament, the electorate and the Civil Service. Bringing in an outsider as a Downing Street chief of staff might work, but only if he or she had the power to dismiss civil servants and spads. Tobias Ellwood MP has suggested that former senior military officers might be suitable, although it seems a long shot to me. Who would appoint them? To whom would they report?
The only ray of sunshine I can see is that the first stage in solving a problem is identifying that one exists. If Sue Gray’s report achieves that, it will be a small step forward.