The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – has usually been seen as a hospital pass (any point during the Troubles), an internal exile for those having to earn their passage back to the mainstream (Mandelson) or somewhere to put rivals or nuisances (Francis Pym, Jim Prior). In some cases, PMs have trolled the residents of that benighted province (Shaun Woodward, Karen Bradley, for heaven’s sake!) Few have shone in the role. One who did was Julian Smith. In his time there, he managed to broker a return of the devolved government (after a three-year stalemate), helped secure agreement in the revised Withdrawal Agreement to there being no hard border between north and south and oversaw the introduction of marriage equality. Quite something for 204 days’ work. For all this he was praised by both the Irish Taisoeach and Arlene Foster and duly sacked by Boris Johnson.
What did the poor man do wrong?
The Home Secretary – no sooner had Julian Smith returned to the back benches than another Cabinet Minister who already knew what it was like to be sacked from office (though with rather more justification than was apparent in his case) got into her own difficulties with her civil servants. Stories emerged of Priti Patel’s alleged bullying and poor man management. It all culminated in a public resignation of her most senior civil servant accompanied by a lachrymosely defiant statement and legal action. In April an internal inquiry by the Cabinet Secretary into alleged bullying found no evidence to support these claims. According to newspaper reports anyway, no such report ever having been published. Others can judge how likely it was that, in the middle of an unexpectedly frightening pandemic, the Cabinet Secretary had either the time or inclination to conduct an effective inquiry into “he said/she said” allegations. Apparently, there is a Head of Ethics and Propriety in the Cabinet Office to do this and her report is, according to the FT, being held back by No 10 because of concerns about what it says about Ms Patel’s behaviour. We shall see.
Ms Patel veers between scarcely believable incompetence (unable to find out who has entered the country during a pandemic or the difference between being given Leave to Remain and citizenship), tongue-tied confusion about the difference between terrorism and counter-terrorism, a lack of concern for a girl facing FGM if deported, good instincts on HK, flashes of real eloquence (on the racism she has suffered) and low cunning (conspicuous silence over Cummings, pointed criticism of Jenrick). Nonetheless, she survives. For now.
Meanwhile lovers of Evelyn Waugh novels will cherish the idea of having a Head of Ethics and Propriety in a Johnson government. It is surely a role in which there is both far too much to do and absolutely no point in doing any of it.
Perhaps inevitably, the current holder is, according to the latest reports moving on to a new position. Is there any point looking for a replacement?
The Housing Minister – plenty has been written about Mr Jenrick already. Despite everything and his own admitted failure to comply with the rules, resulting in him agreeing that his decision to grant planning permission to a Tory donor was unlawful, he is still there, the PM having decided that the matter is closed, the lingering stench of favours for money notwithstanding. This was not helped by Nadim Zawahi’s suggestion that others might like to go to Tory fundraising events to “sit next to” Tory MPs and “interact with” their local authority. Quite why a constituency surgery or letter would not do just as well was not explained by Mr Zawahi, who perhaps revealed more than he ought. Mr Jenrick is still in position, that’s the main thing. For No 10 at least.
The Advisor – so much time, so much effort (a Rose Garden press conference even) was spent defending Mr Cummings, who got himself into a bit of bother over his trips to Durham and Barnard Castle during lockdown, one can only assume Johnson really thinks Cummings is worth it. Quite why is harder for outsiders to understand. Even excluding Covid-19, this government has not been noticeably competent or effective since being elected: policies are being reversed under pressure with little apparent thought for long-term strategy, communication is poor and confused, what happens when the Brexit transition ends is wholly unclear, senior civil servants across government are serving their notice and the Treasury is quietly building its own separate power base, complete with friendly modern personal branding. It is possibly no coincidence that the only effective part of government has been the one department with experience of a previous crisis and whose permanent staff have not (yet) been undermined by a temporary advisor obsessing about “hard rain” and hiring weirdos.
The Select Committee Chairman – Another Julian. Julian Lewis this time. Until a few hours ago a Tory MP. No longer. What heinous crimes did he commit to have the whip withdrawn? How much more incompetent than Julian Smith was he, what unlawful acts did he commit, whom did he treat so badly, what laws or rules or guidance did he break that he is deemed worthy of expulsion from Johnson’s Garden of Eden? None of this. His “crime” was to stand in the way of Chris Grayling being shoe-horned into the role of Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, as the government so transparently wanted, and – gasp! – on intelligence and security matters co-operating with Labour MPs. The horror! All this from a government which never ceases to complain when the Opposition fails to support it over its actions on Covid-19. It is not co-operation it wants but acquiescence and blind loyalty.
Julian Lewis has now been released from his chains. What will he do now? A glance at his previous career suggests someone both willing to speak his own mind and knowledgeable about defence matters, a worthy interlocutor of the newly appointed National Security Advisor. Perhaps that is what the government is afraid of? Or maybe it just doesn’t like being thwarted – “I want, I get” being its apparent guiding principle.
What to conclude from all this? Loyalty matters above all. If you are loyal, you will survive for as long as you are useful, no matter how badly behaved or embarrassing or actively harmful you may be. Competence is an irrelevance, only valued by girly swots.
The PM is willing to be as ruthless as necessary. His expulsion of Ken Clarke (another MP who, like Julian Lewis, refuses to use email) and co., barely 10 months ago, was not a Brexit-induced aberration.
Johnson likes to be loved but he likes being feared even more. This can get you far in politics, indeed has got him to the top. When that love fades and the fear goes – and they will, one day – his fall will be worth watching. For those who believe that ruthlessness and ambition, untempered by competence and integrity, are dangerous, that day cannot come soon enough.