Media training for Ministers of the Crown must now include excusing the indiscretions of people you probably think are beneath contempt
In the past, when ministers broke the rules, made egregious errors or just royally embarrassed themselves, the routine was fairly simple. You resigned sharpish and – depending on the severity of your offence – were cast into outer darkness (the House of Lords), left politics all together or, in the fullness of time were rehabilitated and reinserted to the cabinet as if nothing had happened (sometimes more than once).
More recently, in the period, roughly speaking, between the beginning of the coalition government in 2010 and the chaos of Brexit, the routine changed. Something about the rise of populism, the bracing free-for-all of the new politics, means the norms have been rewritten. Now, when disgraced, a politician can be expected to cling to power – sometimes for months on end, sometimes indefinitely – with the petulance of a haughty toddler. The honourable resignation, the dignified retreat from public life – these are now thought to be signs of political weakness, hopelessly outdated remnants of a prissier political era. Only wimps resign.
For the muscular populists of the post-political era, the polite traditions of 20th Century politics are not just an inconvenience, they’re part of the problem. Decorum, sobriety, propriety – all are no longer sources of legitimacy but evidence of establishment paralysis. Trashing political norms is not incidental to the project – it’s fundamental. And it’s a self-reproducing behaviour. Once a majority of pols are responding to crises in this way it becomes essentially impossible to do so in the old way. When politics shifts and everyone around you is shameless, resigning when found out becomes essentially unpolitical, unstrategic. You’d look like a mug so you hang on until the storm passes (or you’re literally forced onto a plane home to be publicly fired).
So a necessary part of the new routine is the ritual interrogation of the miscreant’s colleagues. It’s an accepted part of the job. Whoever shows up in the studio to answer questions about that day’s big story will, as a matter of routine, be asked to justify the errant minister’s continued presence in the cabinet. There’s a fairly static repertoire of responses – “it would be wrong to pre-judge the official inquiry”, “the minister has apologised and is now 100% focused on delivery of the government’s ambitious programme”, “the minister has the full support of the Prime Minister.”
Given the size of a modern cabinet – (31 ministers attend Rishi Sunak’s cabinet) – there’s always at least one minister in disgrace. In recent times it’s regularly been two or three and, in the remarkable period that came to a close in August, it was often the Prime Minister himself. So the likelihood you’ll be grilled about a colleague’s indiscretions is high. You need to be across the story. In the official car on the way to the studio the minister is reading papers about their own brief, about wider policy and about the antisocial behaviour of a fellow minister. It’s all in a day’s work.
So when our MP Oliver Dowden showed up in Laura Kuenssberg’s studio on Sunday he had to have the Gavin Williamson story down pat. The timing of his appointment to his current role, the status of the inquiry launched when Wendy Morton made her complaint, whether or not the Prime Minister had seen the screenshots of Williamson’s latest outburst. All committed to memory – the man’s a pro. Williamson, who was knighted by Boris Johnson after an earlier sequence of screw-ups (remember the lockdown exam chaos, the one-sided row with Marcus Rashford over feeding poor kids – and the Maro Itoje mix-up, of course – and that Department of Defence leak?), at least nominally reports to Dowden, so that must make it all a bit more real. In the interview Dowden made use of a fairly flimsy ‘heat of the moment’ defence and made the slightly ungracious implication that nobody liked Wendy Morton anyway (“it was no secret that Gavin Williamson, and others indeed, didn’t enjoy a good relationship with the Chief Whip at the time…”).
Williamson’s texts to the Chief Whip, of course, are probably a blessed relief for the government, keeping the Home Secretary’s more consequential string of cock-ups off the front page for a day or two. But the clock is ticking.