On Friday, Dominic Cummings published a blog that set out some extraordinary charges against his former boss. Cummings himself is a man of questionable integrity, as highlighted by the dishonest campaign he ran in favour of Brexit, but he was Johnson’s most senior adviser during a critical period of national emergency and his claims must be thoroughly investigated. There are two main claims, either of which if true should be sufficient to spell the end of Johnson as prime minister. First, Cummings alleges that Johnson tried to put a stop to a government inquiry that he himself had ordered into who leaked the cabinet decision to impose a second national lockdown last November before an official announcement. This was a highly damaging leak that resulted in a media frenzy and confused public health communications at a time when people’s lives depended on receiving clear and reliable information from the government. Cummings claims that Johnson wanted to call off the inquiry because he feared it would expose a close friend of his fiancee as the source.
Second, Cummings says that the prime minister sought to get donors to pay for £58,000 of renovations to his Downing Street flat in plans that were “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal and almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations”. Like all prime ministers, Johnson has a £30,000 annual allowance for the upkeep and refurbishment of his official residence under government rules, but it seems this generous allowance was not enough. Johnson has since stated that he has personally met the cost of the redecoration. But the Tory party is under investigation by the Electoral Commission over whether a donation it received to help pay the bill was appropriately declared.
Taking us all for mugs – Boris Johnston
That these serious allegations are entirely plausible speaks volumes about just how weak and dishonourable Johnson has already revealed himself to be. There have been questions about his integrity for as long as he has held public office. As mayor of London, he failed to declare personal interests, including the fact that a woman he appointed as an adviser was the mother of one of his children, and his personal relationship with Jennifer Arcuri, whose company received thousands of pounds of public money over a four-year period. With Cummings, he led the Vote Leave campaign, which misled voters that leaving the EU would mean an extra £350 million a week for the NHS, a claim the UK Statistics Authority declared a “clear misuse of official statistics” – and lied that a vote to remain in the EU was a vote for a border with Iraq and Syria. The campaign itself was found guilty of breaking electoral law.
Since becoming prime minister, Johnson has continued to behave disgracefully. When democratically elected MPs would not pass his flawed Brexit deal, he shut down parliament in a move the supreme court later declared was unlawful. Not only has he shown a total lack of concern for the union during his premiership, prioritising the right of his party’s desire for a hard Brexit over the national interest, he has failed to show due regard for the fragile situation in Northern Ireland. He lied about the consequences of his deal for border arrangements for Northern Ireland and has been far too slow to respond to rising tensions there. In a sign that he considers loyalty more important than integrity or decency, he failed to sack Priti Patel, who was found to have breached the ministerial code by bullying civil servants. His government has been beset by scandal in relation to the awarding of government contracts to people with ministerial contacts during a pandemic.
All this is profoundly depressing but entirely in keeping with Johnson’s character. This is the man who did not decide whether to back remaining or leaving the EU until it was clear which would be better to further his own political career. Brexit has unleashed a broader governing crisis on the country; to achieve it in the way he wanted, Johnson purged the Conservative party of the integrity, experience and competence of people such as Grieve, leaving a cabinet of amateurish ministers such as Patel, Gavin Williamson and Robert Jenrick. During a national emergency, in which well over 100,000 people have lost their lives, we have a government consumed with sowing division and picking culture wars to distract from its incompetence and channelling public funds to areas of the country based on political expediency rather than levels of need.
Johnson’s premiership embodies perfectly what happens when you get government by people who are motivated not by public service or the national interest but who instead see politics as a power trip that will eventually pave the way for lucrative financial gain. The lack of vision, integrity and principle leaves a vacuum that gets filled with petty infighting, briefing and counter-briefing and obsessing about whether the furnishing of official residences caters to personal tastes. The Observer has called for significant tightening of rules around political lobbying and a strengthening of the ministerial code, but the sad truth is no set of rules in the world can inject integrity, selflessness and leadership into the character of a man who has none.