Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: No sign of the furniture van in Downing Street

25 May

The Prime Minister did not seek “to mitigate or to absolve myself in any way”. He wished, however, to explain that to thank people for their services is “one of the essential duties of leadership”.

So he had raised a glass to thank departing staff. He also intends to say sorry to the cleaners and security staff who were not treated with due politeness during some of the Downing Street parties.

And “Sue welcomes, Sue Gray welcomes” – a rare lapse there as spoke of her with undue familiarity – the fact that “the entire senior management has changed”.

A burst of laughter, for he himself is still in office. But he assured the House that “we are humbled by the experience and we have learned our lesson”.

Odd, perhaps, for Boris Johnson, so gifted a comic actor, to have to play the part of penitent sinner, not that, as he lost few chances to contend, his sins were mortal ones.

Neither Gray, in her report, nor the Metropolitan Police, by serving him with a Fixed Penalty Notice for attending his own surprise birthday party, had managed to evict the Prime Minister from office.

And that was as it should be. Voters have the right to evict a serving PM, and so between elections does the Commons. The game was up for Theresa May, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher when their own MPs lost faith in them.

So the vital question was whether Conservative MPs have lost faith in Johnson. They haven’t. They are embarrassed by what went on, but with rare exceptions, of which Tobias Ellwood was today the most conspicuous, they do not wish to defenestrate him.

Their silence indicated a kind of slightly embarrassed acquiescence in what went on. It was regrettable, it ought not to have happened, but now, as the PM repeatedly said, is the time to move on and focus on other tasks.

The Tories drifted off to lunch. The Opposition went on fulminating, and sounded a bit over the top. According to Chris Bryant (Lab, Rhondda) No10 “has become a cesspit full of arrogant entitled narcissists”.

Sir Keir Starmer, replying to Johnson, sounded intolerably pharisaical as he declared: “I haven’t broken any rules.”

How can he say such things? He also said “the door of No10 is one of the great symbols of our democracy”.

That is wrong. The door stands for power, government, being at the centre of things: here, it says, is the house you occupy if you are running the show.

Sir Keir should have said the furniture van in Downing Street is the great symbol of our democracy: the Prime Minister having to move out within hours of defeat.

Where is the furniture van to bear off whichever of Lulu Lytle’s golden fittings can be prised at the last moment from the walls of the prime ministerial flat?

No sign of it today.

Caino, Caino, it’s off from work we go

24 May

Boris Johnson has three hurdles to clear in relation to rule-breaking parties in Downing Street during Coronavirus – or “alleged gatherings on Government premises during Covid restrictions”, to use the title of Sue Gray’s interim report.

The first was the Metropolitan Police’s investigation.  Last week, it announced that it had concluded its enquiries and has issued 126 fixed penalty notices to 83 people over events on eight separate dates.  The Prime Minister received one fine only – for walking in on and stating at a surprise birthday event over which he claims no prior knowledge.

Since the police haven’t disclosed the reasons for their decisions, we have no idea why relatively junior staff who attended these events received fixed penalty notices, why Johnson was given only one, and why Simon Case, the Head of the Civil Service, received none at all.

I will spare readers a Holmesian probe of who may have attended which gatherings when; whether an event might have been within the rules at one point in time and not at another; under what circumstances someone who enters and leaves an event may not actually have been attending it – and so on.

“Junior staff were encouraged to come forward and fess up, having been told at the time that the events were within the rules.  It’s unfair that they should be punished while their seniors and the politicians shelter behind lawyers,” one Number Ten staffer told me yesterday.

But for all the one-law-for-them and another etc, and the police’s silence over their workings, the single fine left the Prime Minister in a durable position – at least as far as Conservative MPs were concerned.  Most do not believe that he should quit for being surprised with cake, or without it, whichever it may have been, on a single occasion.

Furthermore, a critical mass of them seem to have concluded that Keir Starmer is weak, Labour unconvincing, that the English local election results weren’t really as bad as all that, and that Johnson has a chance of turning it all round by 2024.  The Ukraine war is another factor prayed in aid.

However, yesterday’s leaked photos will have a certain impact, as they were always bound to do.  I doubt they will change the minds of many voters one way or the other.  But they will reinforce the anger, both genuine and opportunist, of Johnson’s enemies and critics.

If it walks like a party and quacks like a party, then it’s a party, they say.  The Prime Minister will doubtless argue from the dispatch box that Lee Cain’s leaving event, at which the photos were taken, was nothing more or less than workers saying farewell to a colleague, and raising their glasses to wish him well.

Downing Street somehow got itself into a tangle over who called a meeting between Johnson and Gray, and seems to be nervous that she will be much more critical of the Prime Minister than some expected.  Her report is the second hurdle.

Johnson can take comfort from the condition of his internal enemies, who were dismayed by him receiving only a single fine, concluded that he was off the hook for the moment, and are worried that if they succeed in triggering a confidence ballot, he could win it – after which the rules bar another challenge for a year.

And he will be encouraged by the state of his external opponents, too.  The police investigation into the event that Keir Starmer attended in Durham has taken the wind out of Labour’s sails.  No wonder it’s the Liberal Democrats and not the officlal Opposition who are calling for an inquiry into the Met’s decisions.

However, many Tory MPs have been waiting for Gray’s report and it is certainly capable of sparking a ballot.  If he survives it, a third hurdle will loom: a Privileges Committee inquiry into whether he misled the Commons over the parties or social events or whatever you want to call them.

Our last survey found that 59 per cent of Conservative member respondents believe that “the controversy about staff gatherings in Downing Street is being overblown by the media and is not important to most voters”.  Thirty-eight per said otherwise.

I suspect that these proportions won’t have changed very much, but that those who hold both views will hold them more intensely.  A majority of Party members want to move on: there is a war in eastern Europe and a cost of living crisis, after all.

But for better or worse British politics is stuck with this post-Covid saga until autumn at the earliest – unless a coup suddenly carries Johnson off.

The police should explain their reasoning for issuing (or failing to issue) FPNs for Partygate

26 Apr

One problematic aspect of the regime of Covid controls which governed our lives for the better part of two years was the extremely uneven manner in which they were enforced.

The rules were often vague, and the legal authority underpinning them shaky. The police had a lot of discretion, which they exercised in different ways in different times and places. The result was scarcely equal justice.

Partygate has put the spotlight back on this. In some ways, it can be helpful to the Prime Minister, as when his allies can point to the injustice of Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford being let off with a slap on the wrist for their own apparent breaches of the rules.

More often, however, it risks a toxic contrast with ordinary members of the public who have been subject to eye-watering fines.

Yet with Boris Johnson having been issued his first fixed penalty notice (FPN), and the prospect of potentially several more in the pipeline, there is another problem: the police, at present, don’t have to publicly set out their reasoning for each decision.

In theory, of course, the Prime Minister could challenge the FPN in court, in which case presumably the Met would have to explain themselves. But there are sound enough political reasons for him to demur from such a course of action even if, as he claims, he personally disagrees with the police’s judgement on the event in question.

But that does mean that we potentially have the future of the Government hanging on a set of decisions of which the public will get no clear explanation.

Given that the current investigation into Downing Street is already the product of special circumstances – Cressida Dick waived the usual bar on retroactive investigations – it shouldn’t be difficult to tweak normal procedure and have officers explain why Johnson is in breach of the regulations on X occasion but not on Y occasion.

This is absolutely not to contest the legitimacy of the decision; it is absurd to suggest, as have Johnson’s allies to the press, that it is improper for the Met to conduct an investigation which might imperil the Government.

But whether or not there should be adequate transparency of how it was made is another matter. If there is a chance that issuing these FPNs ends up in a change of leadership, sunshine is the best policy.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: This Prime Minister has never sounded so contrite, and it seemed to work

19 Apr

Never has Boris Johnson said sorry so often, so publicly and with such a sombre demeanour. Tory MPs repeatedly sought to extenuate the mistake for which he was given a fixed penalty notice by the Metropolitan Police.

“Nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice,” was Othello’s last plea. Johnson did not make that argument in his statement, and would not be tempted, by dozens of supportive Conservatives, into making it as he took question after question.

Mark Harper (Con, Forest of Dean) was very far from supportive: “I no longer think he is worthy of the great office he holds.”

The Prime Minister did not rise to this, but instead continued to humble himself: “I bitterly regret the event in Downing Street as I said.”

This was a big day for Sir Keir Starmer. He began with the words: “What a joke!”

A difficult opening line. Sir Keir spoke it in the manner of a cook who has handed in his notice.

“They know what he is,” Sir Keir went on, indicating the Conservative benches.

“The Chancellor’s career up in flames,” he continued, as an example of how everything went wrong under Johnson.

But why should Sir Keir mind if the Chancellor’s career has gone up in flames? His aim, after all, was to make sure that Johnson’s career went down in flames, an objective not promoted by making implausible assertions.

“The Prime Minister knows what he is,” Sir Keir continued, still in infuriated cook mode.

He then brought in John Robinson, from Lichfield, who because of Covid rules could not be with his mortally ill wife: “John would have given the world to hold his dying wife’s hand even for nine minutes.”

Johnson nodded, more sombre even than Sir Keir. In July 2019, when he took office, I do not think Johnson would have been capable of this.

A thousand days later, he looks older and sadder, and no sign could be detected of his old habit of lightening a serious moment by making a joke.

By the time Paul Howell (Con, Sedgefield) said of Johnson’s offence, “I certainly do not think it is a resigning matter,” it was clear that most of those on the Tory benches agreed with this remark.

Stephen Kinnock (Lab, Aberavon) referred to the resignations of Neville Chamberlain and Margaret Thatcher. Johnson could not say, but many will have reflected, that Chamberlain’s resignation took place when this country was suffering a military catastrophe, and Thatcher’s when her government was split from head to toe on the European issue, and had introduced the perilously unpopular poll tax.

So the question of proportion hovered over all this. Johnson had spoken also of Ukraine, where great and terrible events are unfolding.

He declined to make the connection. Nor would his accusers, for they were intent on maintaining the highest moral tone. They had every right to do this, perhaps it was their duty to do this, but one could not help feeling that there was an element of willed indignation in some of their protestations.

Prepare for attacks on Johnson’s authority to pronounce on law and order

14 Apr

Two days ago, we discovered that the Metropolitan Police are tough on parties and tough on the causes of parties. Today, we have the Government announcing the most eye-catching change to immigration policy in living memory. Flying asylum seekers 4,500 miles to Rwanda to be processed may not be cheap or simple. But it is a way of changing the headlines.

Or is it? Downing Street weren’t expecting to receive fines on Tuesday, and this announcement has long been planned (even if it may have been a surprise to Richard Harrington, Minister for Refugees). It is a prime opportunity for Priti Patel to join Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, in the spotlight. And she hasn’t even had to break the law to do so.

Talking of fines, it has not failed to catch our attention here at ConHome that Ms Patel has been noticeably quiet in supporting the Prime Minister compared to the rest of the Cabinet. Whilst Home Office sources have suggested she “stands fully behind” Johnson, she has not Tweeted that statement out.

Meanwhile, neither Kit Malthouse, Minister for Policing, nor Suella Braverman, the Attorney General, have given the Prime Minister their public backing. The suspicion one has is that the ministers responsible for upholding the law are somewhat uncomfortable in defending their two colleagues being fined for breaking it.

Then again, Dominic Raab has given Johnson his backing – even if Lord Wolfson, a fellow Minister in the Department for Justice, resigned. Perhaps Raab’s double hatting as the Prime Minister’s Deputy gives him some more leeway, but the point still stands. Can those enforcing the law be seen to be defending those breaking it? Has Johnson lost the authority to pronounce on law and order?

This is not an existential issue. Sir Kier Starmer has already suggested this announcement is an attempt by the Prime Minister to “distract from his own lawbreaking”. Lucy Powell, the Shadow Secretary for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport, has said this is more to do with Johnson “dealing with [his] own sinking boat”. Mark Drakeford, First Minister for Wales, has more plainly called it a “cynical distraction.”

Certainly, the Prime Minister’s opponents are wrong to suggest this is a policy that has come from nowhere to distract from the recent headlines.  But with the Opposition already wanting to boost their credentials in the tough on crime stakes, attacks on Johnson’s credibility will not go away.

That is especially the case if, a appears almost certain, the Prime Minister and others in Number 10 receive more fines in the coming days and weeks. If Patel, Malthouse, and Braverman are already uncomfortable with defending him over the singing of ‘Happy Birthday’ and the consuming of a salad in company, then they will only be more so if worse incidents emerge.

With Labour already holding a nine-point lead on law and order (according to one recent poll), and with Starmer keen to make this an issue on which the next election is fought, questions over the Government’s authority on crime and security are going to become more urgent. And that will be the case whatever the Metropolitan Police and Sue Gray decide.

K.Harvey Proctor: The real case against Starmer’s term as DPP. How Operation Midland stole my job, my home, and my reputation.

15 Feb

K.Harvey Proctor was MP for Basildon from 1979 to 1983 and for Billericay from 1983 to 1987.

On 31st January, the Prime Minister criticised Keir Starmer for his alleged inaction in prosecuting Jimmy Savile.

Since then, the Prime Minister has been admonished by Savile’s complainants, the Speaker of the House of Commons, some of his own MPs including the Chancellor and the media. Key aides of the Prime Minister have resigned in response.

What are the facts? Starmer established an inquiry under Alison Levitt, and apologised for the Crown Prosecution Service’s failures in the Savile case. As the Prime Minister apparently intends to do on “Partygate”, Starmer took responsibility for the organisation he led, irrespective of any personal responsibility.

In defending the Prime Minister, Dominic Raab claimed that Sir Keir has questions to answer on his tenure as DPP… Raab is right, though he failed to go into details. Let me present the powerful case against Starmer – the one Starmer is terrified to have even mentioned, let alone be questioned upon.

Boris Johnson should have picked Starmer’s real Achilles’ heel. Instead of Savile, the Prime Minister should have criticised Starmer for his “believe the victim” policy while Director of Public Prosecutions.

Instead of upholding the principles of justice that we observe in this country, Starmer succumbed to the post-Savile hysteria and the corporate guilt many institutions experienced.

Was Starmer concerned about chronically low rape convictions, and the impact that these were having on his career as DPP and his potential political career in the future?

Whatever the explanation may have been, he wrote in a 2013 Guardian article that “false allegations of rape and domestic abuse are few and far between…The system makes judgements about people’s credibility that are unwarranted [and there is a] misplaced belief that fake accusations are rife”.

His campaign to provide better treatment to “victims” of the criminal justice system became political and culminated in his Victims of Crime Bill, 2015 – though the correct term is “complainants” not “victims”. He made speech after speech in support of “victims”, which were picked up by the police establishment, inwardly digested and thus bolstered the general diktat.

Thus encouraged, the police abandoned old-fashioned policing, thought they would become “right-on” and got it exactly wrong. Starmer and Simon Bailey, once the police’s national spokesman on child abuse, thought that false sexual accusers were minimal, less than one per cent.

In his report on Operation Midland, Sir Richard Henriques, a distinguished former High Court Judge, thinks substantially differently: he found 10 per cent.  An article by Sir Richard’s article in Daily Mail during 2020 makes this clear.  I know who I believe.

In 2013, while he was DPP, Starmer wrote that, “false allegations can ruin reputations and devastate lives… .. such cases will be dealt with robustly and those falsely accused should feel confident that the criminal justice system will prosecute those cases wherever there is sufficient evidence, and it is in the public interest to do so”.

But two of my false accusers from 2015, Witnesses A and B, have lifelong anonymity. A & B have yet to be investigated, let alone prosecuted after seven years. The MPS still refuse to allow proper investigation and accountability – stating in 2016 that “ there was nothing to prove police had been knowingly misled by a complainant”.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) ordered an outside police force – Merseyside Police – to conduct an investigation into my complaint. It found in favour of the Metropolitan Police. I subsequently lodged an appeal against  these decisions which is still being considered. No explanation as to why witnesses A and B have lifelong anonymity has ever been given to me by the Metropolitan Police.

Genuine victims of child sexual abuse have my deepest sympathy.  I believe that allegations of any nature against an individual should be taken seriously.

However, that should not be to the detriment of professional policing, fairness, and justice. Upon making an allegation, a complainant should be given the time and space and be listened to. It is then the duty of the police to fully investigate and do so expeditiously, without fear or favour. It is not the job of the police to apportion guilt prior to investigating the claims, as we have seen with the Metropolitan Police and its shambolic handling of Operation Midland.

In November 2014, Starmer’s change in policy was endorsed by the then Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Tom Winsor, who stated that “the police should immediately institutionalise the presumption that the victim is to be believed”.

Indeed, it was – by the Metropolitan Police, in announcing to the world at the start of Operation Midland that the allegations made by “Nick” (Carl Beech), of a VIP paedophile ring operating at the heart of Westminster in the 1970s and 1980s were “credible and true”.

“Credible and true” was the euphemism for “believe the victim” used by Detective Superintendent Kenny McDonald , the head of Operation Midland, at a press conference at New Scotland Yard on 18th December, 2014.

From this moment on, with the search of my home and office on 4th March 2015, the nation was led to believe I was a serial child-murdering paedophile before any investigation had begun, let alone concluded.

The IPCC and the IOPC in Operation Kentia cleared all Metropolitan police officers of misconduct and did not even interview key personnel.  The then Commissioner for the Metropolis, now Lord Bernard Hogan-Howe, gave me a face to face apology in December 2016, offered me compensation – and then resigned before agreeing any. It was left to me to gain mediation three years later for settlement, however incomplete.

The direct impact on my life of Starmer’s perverse policy was that I was, again, public enemy number one. No amount of vindication will prevent the “no smoke without fire” brigade still believing that I am the monster that Carl Beech and the Metropolitan Police painted me to be.

My private life was destroyed. I felt my life had been extinguished. I lost my job, my home, my small but content family unit and my reputation. Even after compensation, the financial cost to me is £500,000. I received death threats. I had to leave the country for a year and, since returning, I have lived in a shed for 18 months and, even when I could afford accommodation, I have had to change homes for safety.

I will never return to being the person I was prior to Operation Midland.   It is impossible to overestimate the damaging impact of such torment on an individual. It has scarred me for life and will live with me until the day I die.

As DPP, Sir Keir’s job was to uphold the law. Instead, he overturned the basic principle of innocence until proven guilty. He did not just overturn it; he shattered it and contributed to the inducement of a moral panic.

I know that I am not alone. I am in the company of Carl Beech’s other victims within Operation Midland: Sir Edward Heath, Lord Brittan, Field Marshal Lord Bramall – and other innocent individuals up and down the country who have suffered from this iniquitous change of policy, but lack the platform I have been thrust upon.

However, Starmer refuses to answer questions on this subject, the most catastrophic policy inaugurated during his time as Director of Public Prosecutions.  He has not apologised. I believe Starmer’s silence is deafening. He should be held to account.  I believe the real supporters and guardians of genuine complainants are those calling for the historic balance between complainants and the accused to be restored.

Starmer’s job as DPP was to uphold the law. Instead he overturned the basic principle of innocence until proven guilty. Starmer has questions to answer and apologies to make. To reiterate and assert what I said in Lord Ashcroft’s book, Red Knight, Sir Keir Starmer is not fit to be Prime Minister. He is not fit to be a Leader of the Opposition; he should not grace the benches of the House of Commons.

Lisa Townsend: Recent revelations about the Met are beyond excuse or apology. But elsewhere there’s good in the police.

8 Feb

Lisa Townsend is the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey.

It’s been another terrible week for the Met and its officers. Recent revelations regarding racism, sexism and so-called “banter” are disgusting, unrepresentative of the vast majority of UK police officers and beyond excuse or apology.

Of course, most of us don’t live in an area covered by the Metropolitan Police, but instead within one of the other 42 forces in England and Wales, or Police Scotland.

Away from the headlines, so often dominated by the goings-on in London, what is the reality of policing in Britain? Recently released crime statistics show that solve rates are woefully low and as Surrey’s PCC I have been clear with my own chief constable in both public and private that our residents demand and deserve better.

These day to day issues have always dominated policing and are most likely what you read about in your daily newspaper and on community groups. But what about the wider policing picture? Are there reasons to be cheerful? I believe there are and that they deserve to be shared.

1. Work to tackle county lines drug trafficking – the recruitment and use of vulnerable children and adults to traffic drugs away from cities and into smaller towns and rural areas – is going on around the country with some excellent results.

Rather than just playing the traditional game of Whack-A-Mole with those caught using small amounts of drugs, police are targeting the organised gangs who supply the cannabis or cocaine that end up on our local streets. Often, these gangs are involved in other serious and violent crimes which can result in long sentences and the disruption of the supply line and organisation.

2. Modern policing has embraced social media, and the results benefit us all. Those needing to report a crime or concern in Surrey can do so using the traditional methods of 999 or 101, but also have the option to contact the Force on our Facebook page, website or to direct message us on Twitter.

The messages are read in real time and by those who are skilled at answering the same concerns on the phone. In fact, for those who are not able to use the telephone to make a report – perhaps through hearing problems or because they are in a domestic abuse situation – contacting the police in this way can be much better.

When speaking to residents, I am often told how useful they find our local “beat” Facebook pages – run by officers – and how helpful the local updates are. In my view, the use of Twitter to help spread the word and locate vulnerable missing persons makes up for all the bad it can do.

3. The recruitment of a diverse police force is absolutely essential if we are to able to continue to police our communities by consent, a cornerstone of British policing and democracy.

This means that our force must reflect the communities we serve – and more than ever, this is the case. While there is still much work to be done, particularly in the recruitment and retention of black officers, real progress has been made. We are seeing women join the force in unprecedented numbers and when I look around at my own force I see a talented and diverse workforce.

4. Serious and organised crime is an area we don’t talk about much in day to day policing, but it is a serious concern in communities, both urban and rural. Successes such as Op Venetic, which so far has resulted in 746 arrests, the seizure of 77 firearms, two tonnes of drugs and £54 million in cash is an excellent example of UK policing and law enforcement working together with European partner agencies to take down a bespoke, encrypted global communication service based in France but used by 10,000 criminals in the UK alone.

Kidnappings and executions among rival gangs have been prevented and countless communities saved from the devastating consequences of organised crime.

5. Combating violence against women and girls – in all its forms – has been made a national priority and not before time. Individually, police forces are required to have a plan to tackle VAWG and officers are better equipped and better trained than ever before in dealing with everything from domestic abuse to stalking.

While sexism and misogyny are not something we will ever be able to police our way out of, I am proud that policing in both my own force, and around England and Wales, is leading the way.

For every bad headline there are hundreds of officers in forces like mine who are working around the clock to keep us safe. You probably know some of them – they might be your friend, family member or neighbour. They are much more than a headline, they are our heroes.

David Gauke: Sue Gray’s report. Yes, the Met should have been more robust earlier. But there’s no evidence of a stitch-up.

31 Jan

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

The decision of the Metropolitan Police to request that Sue Gray make only minimal reference to those events that may result in a criminal prosecution has provoked great anger. Frustrating though the intervention is for all who want to see this matter resolved one way or the other (well, one way in particular, for many of us) and inept though the Met’s communications have been, a lot of the criticism is over the top.

There is no evidence of a ‘stitch-up’, as Ed Davey has suggested, between the Government and Number 10. Could the Met have taken a more robust approach earlier in this process? Yes, but their experience of investigating politicians and then getting drawn into political controversy (see Tony Blair and cash for peerages or the arrest of Damien Green) has made them cautious.

Could their communications have been much clearer in the last few days? Absolutely. Cressida Dick set out the criteria by which it was decided to launch an investigation, which was very helpful, but the Met appears to have been all over the place as to whether it wanted to limit what Sue Gray should say.

Is it clear why the police have now requested ‘minimal’ references? Not from what the police have said, and their reference to ‘prejudicing’ investigations is curious given that these matters are not going to end up in front of a jury.

But none of this suggests that the police are doing the bidding of Number 10. And there is an explanation for why the police would not want Sue Gray to set out all the facts she has uncovered, best set out by the Secret Barrister.

If the police are undertaking an investigation, they do not want all the evidence known to them to be available to a suspect who can then alter their story to take into account any inconvenient facts. When put this way, if this is the explanation, one can see why the police are not being explicit as to their reasons.

Does any of this matter for the fate of the Prime Minister?

He must have a hope that the longer this goes on, the public gets bored, new stories and issues emerge (Russia and Ukraine being the obvious example), momentum for a change is lost and he survives.

At the moment, this appears to be the predominant view and the intervention by the police appears to have helped him in that sense. But, to step back from this for a moment, the fact that the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has concluded that there is evidence of a “flagrant and serious breach” of the lockdown restrictions by people who knew or should have known that this was the case is not encouraging for the Prime Minister. So no, the Met Police have not saved him. His fate is still in the balance.

– – – – – – – – – – –

There was always something odd about the evacuation of animals cared for by the Nowzad charity in Kabul. A great deal of political pressure was placed on the Government to intervene and, no doubt, MPs were receiving plenty of representations from the public on the matter.

At the time, I got the impression that Ben Wallace was resisting prioritising Nowzad (much to his credit, in my view) but was overruled. I tweeted accordingly. (It has to be said that Wallace (who has impressed as Defence Secretary), has recently denied that this is what happened.)

In December, Raphael Marshal, the whistleblowing former Foreign Office official, alleged that resources that could have been used to assist deserving cases were diverted towards the Nowzad staff and animals.

At this point the Prime Minister denied any involvement, even though there was evidence that Trudy Harrison, Johnson’s Parliamentary Private Secretary was heavily involved in communicating with Nowzad, and Dominic Dyer, a colleague of Pen Farthing, had said that that the Prime Minister intervened. Since then, we have had evidence of numerous Foreign Office e-mails stating that the Prime Minister had made the decision.

What is going on? There is the obvious answer – but maybe the Prime Minister is telling the truth, and he did not issue an instruction. What is beyond dispute is that plenty of people in Whitehall thought that he had.

I am not sure what is more concerning – that the Prime Minister made a terrible decision and then lied about it, or that Johnson is telling the truth, someone else made the terrible decision, and persuaded Whitehall that it was the Prime Minister who had done so.

As Alex Thomas of the Institute of Government has pointed out, neither explanation is reassuring. Of course, if it is the latter, the one person who should be most furious and most determined to get to the bottom of this is Boris Johnson. He, after all, is the one who has had his authority usurped. What is he doing to find out?

– – – – – – – – – –

As with any issue, there will always be some people who will link it to Brexit – and “Partygate” is no exception. On one side of the debate there is Michael Heseltine and Andrew Adonis suggesting that the removal of Johnson will mean it is possible to reverse Brexit.

On the other side, there are those who argue that those calling for Johnson to go are unrepentant remainers seeking revenge. Speaking as an unrepentant remainer who thinks that Johnson should go, I do not think either position is true.

If Johnson goes, his successor will spend the leadership election campaign convincing the electorate of their Brexit credentials – the Conservative Party is too far gone in its espousal of Brexit to reverse course for a long time. Nor is the option of rejoining on the table until there is a seismic shift in public opinion, which has not happened yet. As for the campaign to unseat him being a Remainer affair, that is not the impression I get listening to David Davis, William Wragg or Steve Baker.

Nonetheless, those saying that being anti-Johnsom constitutes being anti-Brexit should keep up the argument. This might help in the short term but the longer that Johnson is linked to Brexit – that to be fully onside with Team Brexit you also have to be part of Team Johnson – the easier the task becomes for those of us who think that the 2016 result was a mistake and that the current distant relationship with the EU needs to be changed.

Go on. Make it all about being a Brexit loyalty test.

This isn’t the first time in recent years that the police have probed Downing Street

25 Jan

In another dramatic day for the Government, the Metropolitan police has said it will be investigating the allegations around Downing Street and Whitehall parties. Cressida Dick explained that the force had launched a criminal investigation, following information coming in from the Cabinet Office.

Clearly this is an extraordinary event, as evidenced by the media, many of whom point out how “damaging” and “extraordinary” this is for the Prime Minister, already under huge pressure as a result of the rest of “partygate”. Speaking of the update, Angela Rayner, Deputy Labour Leader, said: “With Boris Johnson’s Downing Street now under police investigation, how on earth can he think he can stay on as prime minister?”

Even for something so drastic, it is interesting to note that this is not the first time the police have investigated Downing Street, having previously looked into the-cash-for-honours scandal under the last Labour Government. To give a brief summary of events: this debacle began in 2006 when Angus MacNeil, of the SNP, complained that four wealthy businessmen had been nominated for peerages by Tony Blair, after they had lent the Labour Party £5 million.

Although the peerages were blocked by the House of Lords appointments commission, it wasn’t long before the police launched an investigation into whether laws banning the sale of honours had been broken. A total of 136 people were interviewed. Blair himself was questioned by the police, albeit not under caution (for which he would have probably had to resign) and instead as a “witness”. Labour’s chief fundraiser was arrested twice on suspicion of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. More on the timeline of events here.

Eventually the police, which compiled a 216-page report on the cash-for-honours scandal for the Crown Prosecution Service, said it had insufficient evidence to bring charges against anyone. But people have pointed out just how destabilising it was for Blair’s government. Perhaps Iain Dale put it best today, when he tweeted: “When it happened to Blair, his government was thrown off course by it. It’s a terrible indictment of the whole No 10 operation.”

Blair, of course, stepped down the following year. Who knows what Johnson’s fate will be through the next few weeks, but it looks like deja vu in one sense.

Patel should follow the Crime Bill with a proper overhaul of the Metropolitan Police

23 Dec

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill is one of the few really worthwhile and substantive pieces of legislation currently being taken forward by the Government. But it must not be the last word on police reform.

Instead, it’s time that the Home Office took a serious look at a long-overdue overhaul of our national policing structure, namely breaking up the Metropolitan Police.

At present, the Met is a strange hybrid of an institution. It is expected to serve as London’s local constabulary whilst also housing a variety of specialist units with a national remit, such as armed protection and counter-terrorism, as well as the Territorial Support Group, the main riot control and public order unit.

This creates an obvious accountability problem: who can Londoners hold to account for the growing litany of local policing failures (including officers failing to turn up to make the arrest when the victim of a crime had done all the work) when the Met’s senior leadership also play an important role in our national security architecture?

Priti Patel has more than sufficient grounds for opening a thoroughgoing inquiry into the Met, and there are several potential upsides to what ought to be quite a simple reorganisation.

Take public order, for example. I have written before that the new powers contained in the PCSC Bill won’t be sufficient to ensure a more pro-active response to public disorder if it isn’t accompanied by a change in police attitudes. They need not only the authority but the will to act, and to shake off the idea that it is better to allow people to commit property damage safely than intervene to stop them.

Hiving off the TSG, and turning it into the core of a new national public order police unit, would give the Home Secretary the chance to build a new organisation with a new command culture and a different understanding of its responsibilities. It would also ease the tension mixed forces face between maintaining relations for community policing and providing effective riot control; the two roles would be performed by discrete forces.

At the same time, the upheaval would provide an opportunity for a change of leadership at the Met, with a new guard focused on the needs of day-to-day policing in London without the distraction of counter-terrorism and other responsibilities (these could be rolled into another lean, specialised force).

Of course, this feels like an inauspicious time to be pitching reform to this Government. Boris Johnson’s interest in it is patchy at the best of times, and his political capital is all but exhausted. Given the status of ‘partygate’, it’s also likely he’s especially uninterested in doing anything which might provoke a reaction from the police.

Patel should start looking at it anyway. There is increasingly no escaping the fact that the Met is in dire need of a serious overhaul. It would be very foolish to allow Labour to steal the initiative – especially given the Conservatives’ increasingly precarious position in the capital.

The Prime Minister might not smile upon it. But he won’t be in office forever. Besides, Met reform could provide a distinctive law-and-order pitch to anyone who might wish to succeed him.