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Alex Massie

The Prime Minister must go

The Prime Minister must go
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It isn’t just the fines. It isn’t just the behaviour that has led to the Prime Minister being issued a fixed penalty notice by the Metropolitan police. It isn’t just the lies told about that behaviour, lies issued with the most sweeping confidence inside and outside the House of Commons. It isn’t just the fines and the indifference to the rules he and his ministers set for everyone else and demanded they follow – on pain of arrest – and the lying about that behaviour and the cavalier assumption that public opinion can go hang. It is all of those things wrapped together.

All of this makes the Prime Minister’s position intolerable and a fellow possessing a greater amount of self-awareness or – to employ an old-fashioned term – honour, would read the room and do the decent thing. That there are ample grounds for doubting this Prime Minister will do the appropriate thing is itself a further reminder of how standards in public life have been corroded.

For it is simply not possible to imagine Theresa May or David Cameron or Gordon Brown or Tony Blair or John Major or Margaret Thatcher carrying on in this fashion. They might each have had their shortcomings and blindspots but none would have presided over – and participated in – a Downing Street social scene of this kind at a time they were placing the rest of the country under significant social restrictions.

The behaviour is bad enough but might have been survivable had the Prime Minister and his allies not treated the public as fools. Do not believe the evidence of your own eyes and ears, they said, for what you see and what you hear is untrue. There were no parties. The rules were followed. These were work events. And if the rules were not followed, well, it was only junior members of the team letting off a little steam in a time of national emergency. The Prime Minister was not present and if he was present he was not involved. Others may have sinned but the Prime Minister, ex officio, cannot have been among them. He was at home.

All nonsense and palpable nonsense at that. The original offences were grave enough but politics and politicians may survive hypocrisy for such are the wages of the enterprise. But the lying – and we may, I think, call it that now – trebles the impact of the original sin. It is that which has occasioned so much public anger and frustration. It is that which requires a sacrifice and throwing a handful of junior operatives to the crown will not suffice.

Doubtless the Prime Minister’s pals will attempt to persuade us that these fixed penalty notices – more than 50 of them! – are of no great import. Nothing more than the cover version of a speeding or parking ticket. This is not the case. When the government imposes extraordinary measures, when it delves deep into everybody’s life, regulating behaviour in ways not seen since the second world war – and in some respects greater than was the case even then – the public is entitled to expect government ministers to respect the government’s own rules as strictly as it enforces them for everyone else.

There ought to be nowhere left for the Prime Minister to hide. Those who will this afternoon and this evening and in the coming days do what they can to provide excuses and cover for a law-breaking Prime Minister should feel a deep shame themselves. They are defending the indefensible and if they cannot appreciate this they lack the character to be in public life themselves.

This is a shameless Prime Minister, of course, and this has always been considered part of Johnson’s rule-breaking, snook-cocking, charm. His chancellor may welcome an opportunity for a quieter life, free from the impertinence of prying eyes, but the Prime Minister cannot be expected to shuffle off the stage willingly. That says enough about him too.

Other objections to insisting that actions must have consequences will not do either. The Prime Minister merits significant praise for the support he has offered Ukraine and the urgency with which he has done so. His trip to Kyiv last week was a powerful reminder to that embattled people that they are not wholly alone. But the Conservative party has changed leaders in times of international crisis before and it may do so again without risking calamity. (This is not just a question of 1940 either; the party toppled Mrs Thatcher even as British troops were preparing to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.)

There is no escaping that this is a very simple matter. The offence was bad, the cover-up worse and the cover-up of the cover-up ridiculous and insulting in equal measure. A Prime Minister need not be popular but he or she must retain some measure of authority. This one no longer does. Time for Conservative MPs to put the national interest first and do what, deep down, many of them must know is the right thing to do. For if not now, in the name of God, when?

Listen to Fraser Nelson, Katy Balls and Isabel Hardman on the latest episode of Coffee House Shots:

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator.

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