Booze, lies and votes
The Tories face a hammering on May 5, but, says Eddie Ford, you are very unlikely to find a principled leftwing candidate
Just over a month ago I wrote that Boris Johnson is “safe when it comes to partygate”, thanks to the Ukraine war, which has saved his bacon “and he knows it”. I also said it was “unlikely” that he would be issued with a fine for breaking lockdown regulations.1
It transpires that Johnson did end up getting fined and now I am not so certain that he will be able to wriggle out of the situation. Maybe the piglet has run out of grease, though he is not toast, as some appear to think. But it is a bit surprising, as Boris Johnson doubtlessly thinks himself, that he has not got away with more than he has. Obviously, a lot depends on unpredictable events, or - to borrow from Donald Rumsfeld - a mixture of known unknowns and unknown unknowns. So far, the prime minister has been issued with only one fine (£50) for the surprise birthday get-together held for him on June 19 2020, where up to 30 people are said to have been present - a Union Jack cake was served and “happy birthday” sung. His wife, Carrie Symonds, and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, were also fined for being present.
The Met have announced that the results of their ongoing investigation will not be revealed until after the May 5 local elections - which raised some eyebrows. Johnson attended at least six of the 12 events in Downing Street that are currently being looked into, including the almost infamous “bring your own booze” party organised by his then principal private secretary in the Downing Street garden on May 20 2020 and which attracted more than 50 people. The police have started to issue fines for this event, with at least two relatively junior officials receiving penalties, but nothing yet for Johnson. In some ways this is a bit odd, as the prime minister has talked about it at some length, telling the House of Commons on January 12 that he was there for 25 minutes and - although at the time he thought it was a “work event” and was therefore permissible - he latterly realised that “with hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside”. Even odder, raising more eyebrows, Johnson has indicated that he did not even receive a questionnaire relating to this party - which suggests that the police ruled out fining him very early on. How come?
Then there is the Sue Gray report, of course - we are still waiting for the final verdict. According to The Guardian, that is not expected until the end of May at the earliest, mainly because the police investigation could drag on for several more weeks. Having said that, one insider has stated it was “wishful thinking” that her report would be published before the end of next month. Gray’s “update” published in February was muted in her criticism - disappointing many who hoped it would herald the downfall of Johnson. However, she is expected - watch this space - to be deeply critical of “how particular individuals ran No10 and how that contributed to rule-breaking”. Indeed, an official familiar with the report has said her conclusions are “excoriating” and “will make things incredibly difficult for the prime minister” - it “could be enough to end him”.
Furthermore, there is also the parliamentary privileges committee inquiry into Johnson to see whether he knowingly lied to parliament with claims he always followed coronavirus rules during the pandemic - like saying, “the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times”, which was obviously untrue, given that he has been issued with a fine by the police for precisely breaking those rules.
This inquiry followed a miscalculation both by the prime minister and his new chief whip, Chris Heaton-Harris. Tone-deaf, they attempted to kick any such investigation into the long grass by adding an amendment that would have prevented the inquiry being held until after both the Met and Sue Gray report findings had been published - which would supposedly have allowed MPs “to have all the facts at their disposal” when they make a decision.
Even though it is meant to be an essential part of his job, Heaton-Harris had clearly not talked to Tory backbenchers before putting forward the amendment - as they were deeply unhappy about being whipped to support it. For them, at the very least it was an unedifying tactic that would not go down well with the public - if not a shifty way to smother a parliamentary investigation. Either way the government, facing a major rebellion on the amendment and the prospect of losing, therefore gave way.
The privileges committee is composed of seven cross-party MPs and considers whether or not individual members have committed ‘contempt of parliament’. It can demand relevant documents, summon witnesses to testify before it and sanction any MP. These sanctions can include suspension and even expulsion from the House of Commons. However, it cannot rule on whether or not there has been a breach of the ministerial code - as the code states that ministers who “intentionally” mislead parliament are expected to do the decent thing and resign.
This triggered lots of worthy editorials in the quality press about the supreme importance of prime ministers and ministers always telling the truth to parliament. About how it would be damaging to democracy if ministers “knowingly” misled or lied to the Commons, and so on. In fact, it is unclear what penalties there actually would be for knowingly or intentionally misleading parliament if someone refuses to resign - especially as the UK parliament has not levied a fine since 1666. This leads to the absurd situation where it is easier to get thrown out of parliament for calling someone a liar than for lying itself.
Showing that Boris Johnson still has a chance, what all this means is that it is entirely within the remit of the premier to decide if a minister has to go or not. There is a long list of various ministers who in the past have resigned for good or bad reasons, but ultimately the prime minister has the final say. In other words, in the slightly surreal British constitution, the prime minister has to decide what the prime minister should do. Telling you the screamingly obvious, this is a highly political question, which - when all is said and done - has nothing to do with what actually happened or the particular facts.
Johnson clearly broke the Covid rules, but the real issue is perception. If you listen to Tory MPs on the media who are critical of Johnson, they repeatedly say that their constituents are unhappy. Hence it is a live political issue in terms of the ranks of Conservative MPs and also voters - who tend to have short memories, but this question looks like it will run and run for quite a while yet.
On the other hand, at least for the moment, after having seen a big surge in Covid infections, we now have a sharp decline (though that could change again with the schools going back). You do not know what is going to happen next, whether with Covid or anything else. Obviously, Ukraine has been a godsend for Johnson. He seems to have thought that going to India and talking about the benefits of Brexit would have a positive effect on his political profile too. Instead, as you could have predicted, this was another miscalculation - having the opposite effect. British journalists constantly questioned him on partygate.
Partygate will clearly have an effect on the May 5 local elections, with more than 5,000 seats up for grabs in 197 councils across the country - mainly in Labour-held areas. If the Tories do extraordinarily badly, we should expect more no-confidence letters to the 1922 Committee - from those who want to get rid of Johnson, whether because of Brexit and ideology, personal ambition, animosity or a simple desire to keep their seat. Some reports claim as many as 46 Tories may have submitted letters. Several senior MPs have revealed that they have sent letters, including Mark Harper and Steve Baker, yet the number is still short of the 54 required.
But there does seem to have been some sort of political shift, without wanting to exaggerate too much. Lobby companies are now looking for Labour Party recruits. That is, they are preparing for the next general election and the possibility of a Labour government, and so want connections with the party. We are not talking about connections with leftwingers, it goes without saying, but with Labour’s mainstream right. Equally obvious, they would not have lobbied leftwingers under the Jeremy Corbyn leadership, as they never thought there was a chance of a Corbyn government. But today they do take seriously the idea of a Labour government.
This just underlines the stupidity of the left for writing off Sir Keir, insisting that he cannot win or does not want to win. All he wants to do is persecute the left, which was absolute tripe from the beginning. Sections of the bourgeoisie clearly think that Starmer can win, even if the left does not.
As for May 5 itself, judging by most polls, the Tories are set to lose hundreds of seats - having won just over 1,500 in England and Wales the last time they were contested in 2017 and 2018. Electoral Calculus and Find Out Now, after conducting a survey before Boris Johnson was fined by police, even predicted the Tories would drop 810 seats in England and Wales, from 1,965 to 1,155, compared to their previous performance.2 Overall, this would represent a 5% swing to Labour away from the Tories. Therefore, according to the pollsters, Labour would gain 835 seats - rising from 2,887 to 3,722. The Lib Dems would lose 13, Plaid Cymru gain 64, and other parties or independents would lose 75. It also projected that the Tories could lose key councils, including Barnet, Harlow and Wandsworth in London. Meanwhile, while many councils remain in ‘no overall control’, Labour could gain Barnet, Bolton, Crawley, Merthyr Tydfil, Milton Keynes, Plymouth and Sheffield. If the results were replicated at a general election, which is pure arithmetical and electoral fantasy, Labour would be the largest party in parliament - but 15 short of an overall majority.
However, other pollsters have poured scorn on the findings. Chris Curtis, head of political polling for Opinium, thought the chances of the Tories losing that many seats was “vanishingly small”. Philip Cowley, politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, declared: “If I had ever written a book on local elections, I would offer to eat it if this happened.” Labour MP Chris Bryant branded the forecasted results Tory “expectation management”, which is quite possible, given that they were first published in the Telegraph.
What are the CPGB’s voting recommendations? If you are lucky enough to find a principled leftwinger in the Labour Party, then vote for them. But do they actually exist and who the hell are they? Perhaps a few sitting councillors, but their numbers must be extraordinarily small. After all, if they really were principled, surely Sir Keir would have got rid of them by now.
Other than that, vote for any alternative left candidates - though there will not be very many, given the number of seats being contested. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (Tusc) - set up and led by the Socialist Party in England and Wales - has said it is standing 250 candidates. Of course, Tusc is hardly standing on a consistent, principled, socialist programme, but at least it upholds basic working class economic interests.
If no left options are available, which will overwhelmingly be the case for most voters, spoil your ballot paper by writing ‘communist’ or ‘socialist’, or whatever you fancy.
‘Putin to the rescue’, March 21: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1388/putin-to-the-rescue.↩︎