I have finally found a Brexit benefit. No, really. But first, the journey.
For someone trained at Goldmans and The Children’s Investment Fund, Sunak is remarkably lacking in ruthlessness. He had a wonderful opportunity to present himself as a clean break with the seediness and shameful self-interest of the Boris years. He could, for instance, have put the ethics advisor on a statutory footing, given him or her the right to start investigations without being asked, differentiated himself from his predecessors and placed a brake on Labour’s ability to misbehave when in government. Labour could hardly have refused their support. Hell, he could have done exactly what Boris did on becoming PM and got rid of those who did not share his vision (or at least have some sense of self-preservation). But rather than shed some of the more obviously useless and/or repellent members of the previous regime –
- He reappoints Suella Braverman who manages to combine a lack of integrity, incompetence and callousness to a degree unappealing to anyone with a modicum of decency, no matter what side of the migration debate you’re on. The result is the Home Office losing migrant children, children, in its care who we must suppose have been trafficked for purposes that don’t bear thinking about.
- Gavin Williamson – a man best left at the back of the class playing with his tarantula and making raffia baskets – is given a post and shortly thereafter leaves, as was all but inevitable. Did Simon Case (we’ll come to him later) forget to advise Sunak that there is no actual constitutional requirement to have a Chris Grayling type in the Cabinet?
- Nadim Zahawi is appointed Party Chairman. Why? Even the most cursory inquiry would have raised so many red flags they could have been sold to a convention of Corbyn fans. Fluent and able as he is, if Zahawi were to appear in an Agatha Christie dramatisation, you just know he will be up to no good, if not the actual villain.
- Dominic Raab is again made Lord Chancellor, despite being one of the worst against some pretty useless recent competition. He faces 8 separate bullying investigations. His Bill of Rights has come back for the second time. It is a mark of how little he is regarded that even the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee cannot hide its contempt for the Bill’s pointlessness, even in the headings in its report (“Bringing rights home, then sending them back”, “No case for the Bill”, “Weakening human rights protection”, “Overwhelming lack of support”)
Then we have Simon Case, who for all his education and experience, has seemingly no understanding of what a conflict of interest is, let alone how to avoid or mitigate it and little sense of how to avoid issues which weaken the civil service, undermine what is left of the government’s ethical underpinnings and cause endless problems for the government. 5 months after Boris’s departure have only increased the number of stories about how he, either aided by Case or not stopped by him, has tainted every independent institution and process and embedded Epictetus’s saying at the heart of the Tory party and government – “Every animal is attached to nothing so much as to its own interest.” Case’s main achievement has been, Cressida Dick-like, to keep his vice-like grip on his job. God knows what we will uncover when he’s gone.
Partygate, Russian money, party donors and their spouses given government roles, the abuse of the honours system, fast-track VIP channels to lucrative contracts for friends of Tory MPs, enormously valuable credit lines given to the PM with little or no transparency, friends and colleagues appointed to roles, getting taxpayers to pay for legal fees, the endless lies, the bullying of journalists asking questions, the “only the little people pay tax” approach when the Tories have increased taxes to levels not seen for decades – the stories come so fast it’s hard to keep up. It is almost numbing. It should not be. We can be – and usually have been – better than this.
Does Sunak approve of all this? Does he not see how it harms him? Or is he so weak he cannot do anything about it?
But let’s look on the bright side. Our politics and public life have become positively European. It’s hard to know which country we resemble. I favour Italy – the mix of rotating leaders, fiscal corruption, personal amorality and a stagnant economy living on past glories – a “series of cultural cliches linked by motorways” (in Grayson Perry’s wonderful phrase) – is positively Italian. But there are so many European countries to choose from: Hungary, Ireland, France – even the EU itself, no stranger to ethically dubious behaviour. When it comes to rejoining the EU – or some other less formal arrangement – we will have no difficulty in showing that our public ethics are of a European standard.
Hooray! A Brexit benefit at last! Not divergence but convergence. I expect my hand-written letter of thanks from Jacob Rees-Mogg delivered by postilion any day now.