Nick Cohen

Downing Street has lost the right to be trusted

Downing Street has lost the right to be trusted
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As a rule, it is naïve to hope that the thuggery of our masters will rebound and the wicked will suffer for their misdeeds. The good don’t end happily and the bad unhappily in modern Westminster. Still, as the Brexit crisis intensifies I am happy to tell you there are a few hopeful signs that the wages of sin are, if not political death, then at least political torture.

In a report of the highest significance this morning, Peter Foster of the Daily Telegraph showed that all Boris Johnson’s blustering that giving him a free hand was the only way to get a deal out of the EU was so much bull. (I know, I know, I was shocked too.)

The Johnson administration has not been sincere about striking a compromise with the EU and has put forward no serious proposals on the Irish border. Foster reported that two ‘highly placed’ sources had told him that Dominic Cummings had described the EU negotiations as ‘a sham’ in internal strategy meetings at Downing Street. Meanwhile the Attorney General had warned Johnson it was a ‘complete fantasy’ to think the EU would bin the backstop to please him. Either he accepted the EU’s terms or we crashed out.

Downing Street denied the report.‘Dom has not said this,'  an anonymous press spokesperson said. ‘He does not believe this to be the case. Such anonymous and unsubstantiated claims should not be printed. We note that these claims were not put to us in advance by author, denying us opportunity to make clear these allegations are untrue.'

Foster was wrong in other words. Not just a little bit wrong but so wrong the government believes his journalism should not have been printed. (I should perhaps tell younger readers that, in the old days before the Johnson administration, it was not considered to be the role of governments to tell a free press what it should and should not print.)

But who believes Johnson’s Downing Street? Ten days ago, my newspaper the Observer broke the story that he was planning to shut down Parliament to stop it thwarting a no-deal Brexit. Downing Street spin doctors led by one Rob Oxley, formerly of Vote Leave, denied the report. As with this morning’s Telegraph, they didn’t say that it was mistaken or that the Observer’s political correspondent Toby Helm had gotten the wrong end of the stick. They didn’t even reach for the handy cop out that Her Majesty’s Government refuses to comment on leaks or speculation. They said the report was 'entirely false'. Most journalists and politicians appeared to believe them. I imagined they reasoned that, surely, no government would be stupid enough to condemn a story so unequivocally unless it was telling the truth. A few days later Johnson revealed that he was indeed planning to suspend Parliament.

As the old saying goes: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Downing Street has lost the right to be believed, and its Putinesque rants about which stories should and should not be published only thickens the mendacious atmosphere that hangs over it.

As MPs prepare to vote today, they have every reason to think that there is no serious attempt being made to reach a negotiated settlement. Either they stop no deal now or we crash out on Halloween. If they do stop no deal, where would it leave this government? The opposition has the power to deny Johnson an election until it is ready. If it denies an election until it is sure Johnson can’t engineer a crash out, the Tories may have to fight with Britain still in the EU, and Nigel Farage crying 'betrayal' (which is what he does best, after all). The Leave vote could split between the Brexit and Conservative parties and all kinds of new possibilities would open.

We will see if Corbyn has the intelligence to realise how strong his position is later today. (I’m not counting on it, but I am prepared to be pleasantly surprised.)

While we wait we should listen out for the satisfying slapping sound of a second boomerang hitting the Johnson administration in the face. Before the Observer story broke, he seemed to be doing well. To the surprise of his former colleagues, Johnson hadn’t tripped up over his own shoelaces or been caught in the wrong woman’s bed. His government seemed energetic and the opposition listless. Then Johnson threatened to suspend Parliament and purge, Corbyn-style, Tory MPs who disagreed with him. Readers may disagree but my impression is that moderately minded Leave voters do not like this menacing behaviour. It’s not only unBritish but suspicious in the extreme. Why can’t MPs ask questions? Isn’t it their duty to protect their constituents and hold the government to account? Most pertinently, the attacks on Parliament and individual MPs go back to the issue of trust. The question of how you can trust a prime minister who wants to shut down democratic scrutiny is as pertinent as how can you believe a word his spin-doctors say.

The effect has been to unite an opposition that previously regarded each other with varying degrees of loathing. As with Corbyn and the timing of an election, we will have to wait and see whether Conservative ‘rebels’ have the guts to actually rebel. The abject decisions of Amber Rudd and Matt Hancock to support a no-deal policy they had previously abhorred do not augur well. But listening to David Gauke and Philip Hammond I thought I heard the whistling sound of an airborne boomerang again and could at least entertain the thought that Johnson’s threats to moderate Conservatives would menace no one more than himself.

I shouldn’t need to say that we are now in the greatest crisis since 1945. Fundamental questions about the future of our economy and security are at stake. The fake news, the threats, the tough guy poses might have worked when Johnson and Cummings were in Vote Leave, but they are in Downing Street now making decision in the midst of a national emergency. They need to be believed. They need to be trusted. And, at the moment, they are not.

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

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