Laying down your friend for your life – it’s the Johnson way
Posted on December 9, 2021
Well, if you touch pitch, you’ll be defiled. And Allegra Stratton is no babe in the political woods. A Cambridge graduate renowned for her fierce intellect, she has built a career as an accomplished and, until recently, respected journalist. As such, she would have been aware of the Prime Minister’s dubious record when it came to truth-telling in that same profession. Maybe it was the allure of going where no man or woman had gone before that clouded her judgement and led her into the liar’s lair.
It seems that in the minds of some leaders, nothing enhances their status and gravitas more than speaking from behind a rostrum – preferably one adorned with a grand patriotic symbol and flanked by national flags. Boris Johnson obviously spent many an evening flicking the pictures in the Trump playbook and took early note of this, along with the press briefings delivered with stone-faced loyalty by a collection of very special people. In July 2020, having made more Covid-related appearances in Downing Street’s briefing room than he could have anticipated, the Prime Minister approved two innovations. The first was refurbishment of the room itself for £2.6 million. The second was the appointment of a spokesperson to front briefings from these lavish surroundings. We’ve never had one of those before.
Although it might not always seem to be so, this country is ruled by parliament, not a president. Johnson has found this to be irritatingly inconvenient right from the start of his tenure. When the Supreme Court told him that he’d acted illegally by ignoring the will of the House – Lady Hale and the spider brooch, remember? – he then took to the frightening road of characterising judges as the people’s enemy. That never ends well anywhere in the world. So, the man whose childhood ambition to be king of the world took note of his American mentor’s approach and decided that he would take control of relaying how and when his weighty decisions would be presented for public scrutiny. Allegra Stratton judged that it was the right time for her to cross the line from the assembled journalists and become the public face for her new master. Like I say, she’s a grown up; she knew she wasn’t accepting a modest stipend from a reputable charity. The reported salary was just upward of £125,000.
The briefings never properly materialised for reasons that somebody, somewhere might know and Stratton ended up being deployed to be the government spokesperson at Cop26. You may have been paying attention and known that but, just in case you didn’t, there was a moment during Johnson’s latest excruciating press conference, when you weren’t allowed to forget it.
Having laid out something called Plan B – and I’m sure you won’t be on your own if you’d thought we were much further down the alphabet by now – Johnson clipped away a couple of tame half-volley questions from the public before facing up to the occasionally formidable, but usually emollient, Laura Kuenssberg. She was in scorching form. How can you stand there, she wanted to know, and expect anybody to take you seriously when you break your own rules and treat the public with contempt? Right. Good. Popcorn out. C’mon. Answer that.
Except, of course, that he didn’t. He decided to choose the moment to praise Allegra Stratton, who had already tearfully resigned because of her part in the vile farce of the giggly exchange in the multi-million-pound room. Maybe Johnson really did think that the viewers and listeners, for whose intelligence he has developed such haughty disdain, would be fooled into thinking this was an act of allegiance and gratitude to a valued colleague. It was, of course, no such thing. It was the politics of the playground: it wasn’t me; it was that girl over there. She’s to blame.
All of which is a case of point-missing of Olympic magnitude. The glib mockery of the events in the briefing room raised hackles of disgust everywhere. It must have been especially wounding for bereaved families and those who endured last year’s lonely, miserable Christmas. And the conduct of Stratton and her thoughtless colleagues must reflect a wider culture that grows in the damp and the dark recesses of Johnson’s Downing Street, notwithstanding its glitzy, tax-funded ornamentation. But the Prime Minister’s deliberate namechecking of Stratton tells a more disturbing tale. Deflect the blame, deny all knowledge, throw your mate under the bus. It wasn’t me.
He is the leader of a government where taking responsibility, behaving ethically, acknowledging the expertise of others and protecting weak, vulnerable outsiders all take second place to the grubby notions of popular appeal and the acquisition of personal advancement. Until now, it seems that for reasons that are often unfathomable, but probably lie in people’s preoccupation in keeping their own lives afloat rather than inspecting the slime of political life, his crimes have not caught up with him. But treating people like complete mugs might just be a game changer. We can only hope.