- Alastair Cavendish
A Gray Area
An interesting and dispiriting feature of the political crisis that now approaches its second birthday has been the remarkable stupidity exhibited by many highly-educated people. It has been almost impossible to predict which of one’s friends would maintain a relatively level head and which of them would behave like decapitated chickens, but one thing is clear: advanced degrees do not help. This, when you think about it, is not altogether surprising. Members of an Oxford college are no more immune from groupthink than members of a working men’s club. People tend to replicate the political and social opinions of those around them, and this tendency may be even more pronounced if they regard those around them as unusually intelligent people.
Education, moreover, can often seem like a long and suffocating process (literally suffocating at this peculiar muzzle-bound point in history) of suppressing original thought. This process so irritated me when I was at university that I invented a French philosopher, to whom I attributed all my own ideas which, so far as I was aware, had no prior source. My philosopher was called the Seigneur de Lescoin, and was a slightly younger contemporary of Montaigne. It quickly became apparent that opinions which would be dismissed out of hand when they came straight from my lips or pen acquired gravitas and authority when prefaced with the words: “As the Seigneur de Lescoin famously remarked in 1588…” In those days before Google, no one ever challenged the existence of the Seigneur, or observed that his opinions on a wide variety of topics were curiously similar to my own.
I started to wonder if the media and the Cabinet might be playing a similar game when, a few days ago, they all began to refer to a great thinker and paragon of integrity known as Sugret. I had thought that my grasp of French philosophy, real and fictional, was tolerably sound, but suddenly, everyone was talking about the magnificent abilities and sterling qualities of Sugret, of whom I had never heard. I heard these encomia a dozen times before I understood that the person in question was in fact, an eminence grise in the Civil Service, appropriately named Sue Gray. I had never heard of her either.
It is typical of the way in which modern British political discourse, which is to say, propaganda, takes place, that the public was immediately instructed with a hundred forked tongues to accept this woman of whom it had never heard as the apex of integrity. Minister after crooked minister, reporter after corrupt reporter waxed eloquent on the virtues of Sue Gray as a doughty seeker after truth who would invariably speak as she found, without fear or favour. Sea-green incorruptible, straight as a die, honest as the day is long. This, we were told again and again, is what the troops are saying about good old Sue Gray.
In fact, is you look into Ms. Gray’s background, you will find two things, the first of which is that you have not discovered much. There is less information available about her than almost any other comparatively senior figure in the British establishment. We do not know her age, for instance, or where she went to school or university. The second thing you will find is that Ms. Gray’s proclivity for secrecy extends from the personal realm to the professional. She was a leading figure in the Grenfell Tower and infected blood inquiries, and is notorious for her determination never to leave a paper trail.
The Gray Inquiry is the most transparent of stalling tactics. Everyone already knows that it will not explicitly condemn Boris Johnson or call for his resignation. Its scope is rather narrow and Johnson, after all, has to approve the report himself. A few middle-ranking civil servants may be offered up as a blood sacrifice as an indirect result of the report. That is all. The constant, frenetic talking-up of Sue Gray’s unimpeachable integrity is nothing but an obvious and probably doomed attempt to make the whitewash appear a little whiter when it is applied.
It appears increasingly likely that Gray’s report will not save Johnson, and many will be delighted to see him on the ropes. And yet… there are worse people in the world than Boris Johnson. This does not seem to be the case when you watch him lying and prevaricating. The man is a shambling outrage, a disgrace to humanity, without a moral bone in his body. The best defence I can manage is this: we live in an age of such universal political corruption that the worst Prime Minister this country has ever seen (even including David Cameron and Tony Blair), is far from the worst Prime Minister who can be imagined. Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon have been worse. Almost any leader you can name in Europe or the Anglosphere has been worse. Michael Gove would be worse. Jeremy Hunt would be worse. Plenty of other Ministers would be worse or no better. Add this to the obvious fact that the knives are out for him, that people who must have known about the Downing Street parties for many months have decided to choose this moment to inflict the maximum possible damage, and you have some reason to hope at least for the temporary salvation of Big Dog. Perhaps it is not entirely a coincidence that so many of his former allies are eager to lacerate him at just the moment when he has started to make some of the right decisions.
Political danger appears to have galvanised Johnson into something resembling leadership. It would have been marvellous if he had shown this leadership two years ago. He had the chance to be the twenty-first century Churchill, and entirely missed this chance through his cowardice and corrupt nature. He now probably knows that his political legacy will be a dismal one, and there is little that he can do about this. The man has very little good in him, but he can be forced into doing the right thing: late, incompletely, and for the wrong reasons, but still the right thing. If he is ousted from office, I for one will not shed any tears for his political demise. Even if one felt inclined to do so, there would not be time, for we shall all require the clearest of eyes to watch his successor like a hawk.