Michael Fabricant is MP for Lichfield.
Last week, I spent considerable time on the media defending Boris Johnson (as I will perhaps do this week too). Why did I do so?
Am I after a promotion? No. Do I want to get into the Prime Minister’s good books? No.
It’s because I despise bullying and injustice. Whether it was my challenging John Bercow – never a wise move to argue with a Speaker who can switch you off mid-sentence – or a Minister who was bullying a subordinate in his department, they all have to be called out.
At the beginning of last week, the media were trying to portray Downing Street operations as bacchanalia flourishing in the face of a national lockdown. And little riles the British public more than hypocrisy by those in power setting rules for others which they themselves then ignore.
So I thought it important to explain that the Downing Street garden is not a public place like a park from which we were all banned except for taking exercise. Far from it. I also sought to explain that it is not just a few grand rooms, but 100 plus pokey little offices in three buildings over 300 years old, all knocked together. It was no surprise to me when Covid ripped through numbers 10, 11, and 12, with Johnson himself being rushed to hospital.
At the time of the garden party in May 2020, I have pointed out that many staff had been working 18 hour days, and were exhausted. So meeting in the fresh air, in a secure environment patrolled by armed police so no outsiders could mix in, was not going to increase the risk of spreading Covid.
Was it wise? Probably not. Was it illegal as it was not a public space? Well, Sue Gray will be the judge of that. And one of the Prime Minister’s failings – we all have them – is that he empathises with staff who have been working long, unthanked hours for him and the nation.
However, we now find that there was a culture of meeting for drinks after work, as in so many other organisations. Again, no mixing with outsiders was permitted, so although it might be understandable from an epidemiological view, at a time of lockdown it was wrong.
And Johnson has apologised to the House of Commons and to the British public. When he found that a leaving party took place the night before the funeral of Prince Philip, he apologised to the Queen, even though he did not himself attend: at the time he was over 40 miles away at Chequers.
But the visceral loathing of the Prime Minister goes deeper than just the understandable fury of those who think it’s one rule for them and one rule for us.
It’s one that defies logic and forgiveness. For it was Johnson who delivered Brexit and there are many who suffer from Long Brexit: they just can’t get over it and will never forgive. And then there is an even stronger motive: the very fear that just as the magic of the Prime Minister delivered Brexit, so he could deliver another general election victory for the Conservatives, too.
Of course, MPs have been receiving ‘Boris must go’ messages, and many of them are identical website click emails. In total, the number of messages I have received so far – not all from my constituency because of my recent media profile – are less than one-fifth of one percent of my electorate.
I do not doubt that people are very angry, and some of my colleagues in Parliament fear for their own seats or have always despised Johnson’s approach.
I concede there is something wrong at the heart of Downing Street. But it isn’t an arrogant detachment from the public as our opponents wish to portray. It is the very structure by which the organisation is run. The civil servants and advisors are all part of the Cabinet Office, which is based in a different building in Whitehall.
Tony Blair tried to establish a different department: an Office of Prime Minister. The idea makes eminent sense, but he failed. Johnson must not. A separate Office of Prime Minister with its own civil service management based in the building might well have prevented these gaffs from happening.
So where do we go from here? Gray is yet to report and if the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine are to be believed, Britain could soon be the first country in the northern hemisphere to escape the Covid pandemic.
Meanwhile, I will continue to try and explain these circumstances on tv until even the press tire of their relentless Johnson-bashing.