There’s a line in ‘All the President’s Men’ which seems dismally appropriate for our current government: ‘News that would have occasioned banner headlines a few weeks ago was now simply mentioned in a larger story’. When things fall apart, boy they really fall apart.
This is not Watergate, of course, and Brexit must happen because that is what the people have commanded. Nevertheless, this is not a government that inspires confidence even on its own benches. And by God there is too much news. More, certainly, than can fit in a single story or be the subject of its own banner headlines.
Up until now, the standard view has been that Boris Johnson is less trouble in the Foreign Office than he would be were he left to prowl the back benches. Never mind the insult this represents to the FCO, ask the family of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British citizen now looking at a decade in an Iranian prison, at least partly because of the Foreign Secretary’s carelessness.
To put it another way, it is hard to imagine the circumstances in which previous foreign secretaries such as Malcolm Rifkind, Douglas Hurd or Jack Straw would have made quite this kind of blunder. A mistake, remember, that seems quite likely to result in a British citizen being incarcerated in an Iranian prison for five more years. One assumes they would have read their brief and chosen their words appropriately.
Even if you take the charitable view of Johnson’s conduct – that he misspoke and will do his best to undo the consequences of his carelessness – it remains the case that this error simply confirms what many people have long suspected about Johnson: he’s neither interested in, nor capable of, doing his job properly. That being so, you wonder why he continues in office.
Making matters worse, the foreign secretary appears pathologically incapable of recognising he has made a serious mistake. In the Commons this afternoon he accepted his remarks ‘could have been clearer’ when a larger man might have apologised for making a factually incorrect statement. Digging deeper, he insisted it is ‘simply untrue’ his comments have anything to do with the fresh proceeding launched against Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a statement that, on the face of it, seems to be at odds with the Iranian judiciary’s suggestion that ‘For months it was claimed that Nazanin is a British-Iranian charity worker who went to see her family when she was arrested. Mr Johnson’s statement has shed new light on the realities about Nazanin’.
The Iranian regime is a deplorable one but the least a British citizen can expect from her foreign secretary is that, if she is arrested in Iran, that foreign secretary will not make her predicament worse. Saying, as Johnson did this afternoon that, ‘I am sorry if my words have been taken out of context and misconstrued’ cuts neither mustard nor ice. Mr Johnson is Foreign Secretary, not a tuck shop prefect.
Meanwhile, the Secretary of State for International Development is revealed to be running a freelance foreign policy wholly without the knowledge of the Foreign Secretary or, of course, the Prime Minister. The stupidity of this is almost as breathtaking as its arrogance. Meetings are one thing; making policy suggestions to the Israeli prime minister quite another.
Then, naturally, when the truth emerges it must be denied. Because, really, only nit-pickers care about the detail and the rest of us – which means the rest of you – can carry on as though nothing, least of all anything untoward, had happened at all. And so it is that Priti Patel remains a member of the cabinet. There is a certain logic to this. If there’s a shambles everywhere, why should an individual cabinet minister be expected to take one for the team and do the erstwhile decent thing? There is a kind of safety in collective ineptitude and collective shamelessness.
So they hunker down, clinging to one another in the hope that if the black spot must be passed to someone it will at least be given to someone else. In other circumstances, perhaps this would seem to matter less; it might be seen as an unfortunate coincidence of events and timing that said nothing about the general business of government which, as that business must, carries on. But these are not those other circumstances and the business of government appears badly broken. Events, as so often, compound one another, creating a perception of a government that is utterly lost. Misfortune begets misfortune and it all ends nowhere good.
Above it all there sits a Prime Minister apparently too weak to sack her errant ministers yet, despite that, strong enough to remain Prime Minister. This too bodes nothing good. Never mind fake news, this is fake government.