Tuesday, 23 May 2023

Assessing the straws


The trouble with the last straw is that you can never be certain that it is truly the last one until the camel’s back has already been broken. And that, in a sense, is Sunak’s conundrum. For a man who proclaimed integrity as one of the guiding principles of his government, even appointing Suella Braverman into a job from which she’d been sacked just days previously for a breach of the ministerial code was a high-risk decision. Allowing her to continue embarrassing him on a more-or-less daily basis is like adding more and more straw to the camel’s load. It's not the weight or importance of each individual straw that matters, merely its marginal impact on the existing load. It's a particular problem when he himself is engaged, as Peter Oborne has pointed out, in following the Johnsonian path of daily lies, untruths and distortions. Which particular scandal will be the one which forces the camel to its knees, breaking its back in the process?

Many of Braverman’s allies have been quick to point out that in the scale of things, exceeding the speed limit isn’t the biggest of scandals (although cabinet ministers and Tory MPs giving the impression that it isn’t really a ‘proper’ crime at all isn’t going to be conducive to the government’s own messaging on road safety). The seriousness of asking publicly-paid staff to assist in getting her special treatment depends on details which have yet to emerge – a polite request, greeted by a ‘no’ followed by immediate acceptance of the answer and the reasons would be a different matter to a repeated instruction and a refusal to take ‘no’ for an answer. And the apparent encouragement / instruction of an assistant to lie looks rather more serious, although it could still turn out that said assistant was acting on his or her own initiative, rather than following ministerial direction. Lack of honesty merely adds to the suspicions. And every straw adds to the load.

Sunak’s indecisive initial reaction looks like a combination of waiting to see if it will blow over and the politicians’ tendency to outsource their sense of morality to someone else. It sometimes seems that many of them really believe that morality is about whether they are explicitly found to have breached a particular rule rather than taking responsibility themselves to behave in a manner which leaves them beyond reproach. Just for once, I almost agree with Jake: It doesn’t need the PM to initiate a formal ethics investigation into the incident, and the PM is perfectly capable of looking at the facts and deciding whether what has happened is acceptable or not. And doing so more or less instantly. (Although I disagree with Jake’s apparent belief that the incident should be judged on a stand-alone basis rather than judging the perpetrator on her overall approach). The fact that he hasn’t done so – and seems incapable of doing so without a period of dither and delay – underlines the extent to which he is a prisoner of factions within his own party. It’s not clear that he still knows or even cares whether the camel is dead or not yet.

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