Richard North, 03/05/2021  

Well, the Guardian isn't a broadsheet any more, and hasn't been for a long time, but it's close enough to be in the same general league as the Telegraph. And, although not explicitly stated, the two titles are very much at war with each other over prime minister Johnson.

The Telegraph started it, with its multiple pieces defending its boy, but the provocation has proved too much. The Guardian has retaliated with no less than seven articles taking up diverse aspects of the Johnson soap opera.

For a starter, we have an opinion piece by Stewart Lee, a stand-up comedian, writer and director, who is allowed to tell us that he had barely finished one joke about the PM's rollercoaster week when it was overtaken by events.

I've never watched Mr Lee doing his stand-up act and, in truth, until I read his column in the Observer yesterday, I'd never heard of him. But he serves his function in making up the numbers on the Johnson front.

A more substantial contribution comes from regular columnist Andrew Rawnsley, who writes under the heading: "Why sleaze investigations are becoming more menacing for Boris Johnson".

"Number 10", the sub-head tells us, "is beginning to panic now that independent interrogators are in pursuit of the truth", as Rawnsley points out that the reaction of voters has always been a factor in the impact of sleaze scandals, but to regard opinion polls as the only metric that matters is to throw away any claim to a moral compass.

Transparency about who is supplying cash or other benefits to elected representatives, he writes, is an absolutely fundamental principle. It is why there is a register of members' interests, a register from which Johnson is not exempt, although he has a history of behaving as if the rules don't apply to him, making late registrations of his financial interests on at least nine occasions.

For reasons that should be too obvious to spell out, Rawnsley adds, we need to know who our lawmakers and decision-makers are beholden to and why, especially the prime minister. We also need to know whether he has sought to conceal his indebtedness to private interests from the public. If a man can't be straight about how he paid for his sofa, what else might he lie about?

Another of the Guardian's "big guns" is Nick Cohen and he is also holding forth about Johnson, his title asking: "If public life goes unregulated, just who will hold politicians to account?"

"Boris Johnson", he writes, "has a sense of entitlement where a sense of morality should be". In what might be regarded as a flash of cynicism, he adds: "Put a man like that in charge of a well-governed country and anti-corruption investigations follow. Put him in charge of this country and, instead of detectives with warrants, we have chums looking at chums, morally compromised arbiters and intimidated watchdogs".

That cynicism continues as he remarks that it is now a cliche for political journalists to write that Conservative voters have "baked in" Johnson's sleaziness, as dopeheads bake in hash to a brownie.

But Cohen prefers to leave it to Conservative readers to say whether the insulting conviction they don't care about charlatanry and crookedness is true. And he leaves it to lawyers to say whether the defence "you cannot jail my client, your honour, the public has baked in his guilt" has ever worked in court.

What is especially interesting about his piece, though, are his observations about parliamentary commissioner for standards, Kathryn Stone, who may soon be investigating Johnson's relationship with the munificent Brownlow.

Here, he tells us that Stone can recommend that the Commons suspend Johnson, but the Conservatives can use their majority to frustrate her. Actually, that's not quite correct. Stone, if she feels that Johnson's transgression is proven and serious enough, will refer his case to the standards committee. It is this committee which can recommend suspension, but the execution requires a vote from the whole House.

But Cohen is not wrong is saying that it would be a defining moment if the Conservatives did block a suspension recommendation, It would be, he says, a statement that a party that once stood for traditional morality had baked in privilege and venality until it has reduced itself to ashes.

Next in line for a pop at Johnson is John Harris, but he also takes in Cameron to write about "Britain's overgrown Eton schoolboys", who have "turned the country into their playground", remarking that, "the reckless disdain of Boris Johnson and David Cameron is evidence of the institutional elitism blighting our politics".

I don't agree with him, though, when he asserts that Brexit "is a direct result of the latter-day dominance of politics by the privately educated". Brexit was around as a concept long before either Cameron or Johnson got near it.

Inventing a new word (or a typo), Harris then says: "Moroever (sic), because that dominance symbolises a very English mixture of nostalgia, deference and recklessness, it is part of the reason why the UK is now pulling apart". Indeed, he says, "the fact that Johnson has been so hare-brained about arrangements in Northern Ireland is a vivid case study in the perils of entrusting matters of the utmost fragility to people whose basic unseriousness is not just toxic, but extremely dangerous".

"Part of the English disease", he concludes, "is our readiness to ascribe our national disasters to questions of personal character. But the vanities of posh men and their habit of dragging us into catastrophe have much deeper roots".

Harris takes the view that they centre on an ancient system that trains a narrow caste of people to run our affairs, but also ensures they have almost none of the attributes actually required. If this country is to belatedly move into the 21st century, he says, this is what we will finally have to confront: a great tower of failings that, to use a very topical word, are truly institutional.

On a slightly lighter note, we then have William Keegan, writing that, "Brexit's Mr Pooter may not survive his dispute with Cummings".

In some finely-tuned observations, Keegan notes that Johnson used to live in London's Islington, a place shared by the fictional Mr Pooter, protagonist of the Victorian classic Diary of a Nobody. Pooter's wife was called Carrie, and his close neighbour went by the name of Cummings, of whom on one occasion Pooter writes: "Cummings and I have a little misunderstanding".

Carrie's husband and his friend Cummings manage to get over their misunderstanding but, says Keegan, if there is one thing certain about the fallout between the Brexiters of Downing Street, it is that hell hath no fury like a Cummings scorned. "It is obvious", he writes, "that this episode is going to end in tears; and, as a betting man, I would not put money on Johnson's long-term survival".

Two more pieces complete the line-up, an article by Ed Cumming on No 10's "disrespect" for John Lewis, and then an analysis headed: "Labour hopes Tory sleaze will lift its 'red wall' vote. In Dudley, they’re not so sure".

The party aims to come back strongly in the West Midlands, it reports, but - despite the best efforts of the paper – "Boris Johnson seems relatively unscathed by scandal".

And, while that completes the Sunday line-up, while all the other papers today are covering the Manchester United pitch invasion on their front pages, the Guardian uniquely runs an attack piece on Johnson, with the heading: "Senior Tory says Boris Johnson should resign if he breached ministerial rules".

This is Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, an intervention that is said to have caught No 10 by surprise, coming after Johnson was accused of successfully obtaining funds for the flat from a second donor, while a third was alleged to have been asked to pay for a nanny for his one-year-old bastard son.

With such articles, the Guardian (unsurprisingly) is making it very clear what it thinks of Johnson – as aggressive in its condemnation as the Telegraph is supportive. This lays the ground for a continuing spat, and it will be interesting to see which paper runs out of steam first.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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