What do you need to do to get sacked in this place? Quite a lot, according to the response from Downing Street to the two rows in Westminster today. First, there’s Boris Johnson, refusing to apologise in the Commons for his blunder last week about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. When asked about why Johnson hadn’t said sorry for the distress his mistake had caused, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman argued that the important thing was that ‘the clarity that the Foreign Secretary provided today was clearly helpful, it has been welcomed and the Iranians are in no doubt as to what our view is’. He repeated the point about clarity being the most important thing in response to a number of different questions about whether Boris Johnson was doing his job properly, including when asked whether it mattered that Johnson wasn’t right first time, and whether this now meant that it didn’t really matter if ministers pitched up before other committees and made similarly dangerous remarks, so long as they clarified them at some point. This seems to be a rather odd approach to government, especially in the Foreign Office. It’s almost as though Johnson is a school pupil who is being allowed a retake of some of his public exams.
The spokesman was more forthcoming on Priti Patel in the sense that he told journalists that ‘nobody is saying that this was done in the right way’, but he didn’t engage with why it was that Theresa May had been able to judge that Patel had not broken the Ministerial Code, but had referred the case of Mark Garnier to see whether he had broken the code. He said ‘the point is she has apologised for not doing things in the proper way’ and that there was a lack of clarity on this point in the Code, which is why the Prime Minister had asked for a review of it.
It still isn’t clear how and when Patel made clear to Number 10 the full content of the meetings that she had was. The spokesman said that Patel ‘set out as she did in her statement yesterday the broad areas that were discussed in the different meetings’, but that he didn’t have ‘precise detail’ about when it was that Patel clarified that she had discussed DfID money for the Israeli army in the Golan Heights. ‘We knew that she had discussed humanitarian support, in terms of aid to the Israeli army, that was obviously a proposal which wasn’t taken forward, so I’m not aware that specific point got as far as us, I don’t think it ever left FCO/DfID.’
So this sounds as though Patel didn’t notify Downing Street of one of the most controversial aspects of her holiday meetings: that she discussed humanitarian support for the Israeli army in an area that the Foreign Office does not recognise as being officially Israeli territory. Yet Downing Street is hoping that this matter is closed.
The message that this sends out to other ministers – and other governments – is that you can basically plough your own furrow as a Cabinet Minister without any accountability. The government is in such a mess, and Theresa May so terrified of more allegations of sexual harassment against other ministers, that even reshuffling ministers who are flagrantly ignoring Downing Street or putting British citizens at risk is too difficult.
Beneath all these rows is the day-to-day business of government. And the ambition of May’s apparently ‘radical’ administration now seems to be do little more than survive and avoid any more rows. That is stagnation, not government, and is hardly an aspiration. Westminster has been nicknamed ‘Pestminster’ over the sexual harassment allegations, but a more accurate term might be ‘Messminster’ as no-one in government seems to be able to handle anything properly.