Anne Harris: Johnson’s latest trouble comes from those he scorned

The story of this prime minister’s decline is a plain old English revenge drama

British prime minister Boris Johnson has responded to allegations made by senior Conservative MP William Wragg, saying that there is no evidence that MPs who oppose him are being blackmailed by his staff. Video: UK Parliament TV/Reuters

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‘Just one last chance.” It’s the eternal cry of the naughty child. That this is the battle cry on behalf of Boris Johnson by his allies is a measure of how low he has sunk. “Fight them on the beaches,” it certainly is not: the Churchillian mantle he tried for size, now mildewed in the suitcase along with the empties from the parties.

Because of his posh, classical education, Johnson invites Greek tragedy metaphors. But the story of his decline is a plain old English revenge drama: on his push to the pinnacle he made many enemies. His weapon – Brexit – was one of mass destruction.

The British body politic has been maimed. Ireland damaged too: Anglo Irish relations regress to antagonisms we thought long dead and Anglophobia is rampant, according to a recent poll.

No surprise then that many of the cannons trained on him in recent weeks were marked Remainer.

Ministers doing the weekend TV rounds rejected any suggestion of Islamophobia in the Tory party, citing as proof the party’s establishment of the Swaran Singh investigation into discrimination

But there is a special Resistance of women, for most of whom Brexit was also the crunch. Fearless women like Ruth Davidson, former leader of the Tory party in Scotland, Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour Party, and Beth Rigby, political editor of Sky News. They are his nemeses.

Together with Nusrat Ghani, the woman who allegedly had too much “Muslim-ness” they are the Four horsewomen of the Apocalypse, who represent everything the Tories seem to struggle with; truth, diversity, dissent and class egalitarianism.

The Sue Gray report, due this week, cannot sanction – the word on the street is she has uncovered more parties – but it can damage. The real trouble for Johnson is that partygate has been overtaken by another, even more serious scandal – the scourge of the Whips.

The steady stream of MPs’ alleging bribery, blackmail and bigotry by the Whips has a consistency – loyalty or your constituents will suffer. It goes beyond Downing Street’s indiscipline to reveal an administration out of control.

Nusrat Ghani was the first to make an allegation of Whip impropriety after she was sacked as transport minister in Boris Johnson’s first Cabinet reshuffle. The sacking surprised commentators. She is one of only five MPs sanctioned by the Chinese government for speaking out on its treatment of Uighir Muslims.

She claims she was told by the Chief Whip her “Muslim woman-ness” was making colleagues “uncomfortable”. Sajid Javid, also a Muslim, was forced out as chancellor at the same time.

The Chief Whip denies the allegations, calling them “defamatory”. Downing St claims Boris met her and told her to lodge a formal complaint, which she didn’t.

Ministers doing the weekend TV rounds rejected any suggestion of Islamophobia in the Tory party, citing as proof the party’s establishment of the Swaran Singh investigation into discrimination. This is mystifying since the report confirmed Islamophobia in the party. One can appreciate her dilemma.

Ghani also claimed at the time that she had informed Boris Johnson the party had a “woman problem” and this also fed into her sacking. Nobody, anywhere has bothered to address “the woman problem”.

But it undoubtedly bothered Ruth Davidson, the woman who routed the Labour Party in Scotland, only to have her triumph tarnished by Boris. Brexit, partygate. Her battle cry, “Boris is unfit for office”, has a deadly ring.

If Johnson was a reflective fellow, he might realise that Nusrat Ghani was the classic watchperson sounding the alarms of war. But, as the “One Last Chance” call suggests, he is a puer aeternus who doesn’t comprehend the consequences of his actions and chafes at restrictions. Something Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader exploits.

For weeks she has been using Prime Ministers Questions to keep him wriggling on the hook. His celebrated debating skills have proved no match for the working-class northerner who left school at sixteen, pregnant, with no qualifications. Her mother, of whom she is very proud, could neither read nor write.

She’s smart, she’s funny and above all she’s confident. Like the best stand-ups her timing is impeccable. She’s like Les Dawson – she can bring the House down with a simple “hello”.

“How’s it going prime minister?” she asked an apoplectic Boris working himself up on Brexit and the economy, “Are you ok?” They corpsed themselves. He should spend less time “brushing his hair and more time brushing up his act” she taunted, calling out the past- its sell-by- date boyishness.

She has, of course, been vilified for her pronunciation and her grammar: “Was you or was you not at the parties?” she demanded. He wasn’t. He didn’t know if he was. He was – but it wasn’t a party. It was work. He was sorry. Bad grammar gets good results.

There was poetic justice here. Because bad pronunciation is one of the lowest jabs in Johnson’s verbal joustings. At the political gathering to crown him as party leader, Beth Rigby, Sky’s political editor interviewed him. In her customary unflappable fashion, she asked him if he was bothered about the question of his “character” which had arisen consistently during the leadership hustings.

“My parrot,” he mocked purporting to have difficulty with her pronunciation. “My parrot,” he repeated, enjoying her humiliation as the laughter drowned out the question.

If there is no fury like a political editor scorned, she didn’t show it. For two and a half years, she did her job.

And it was her sheer professionalism which delivered revenge. It was she, Beth Rigby, who elicited the ultimate, infantile excuse – “Nobody told me”– which is certain to haunt him and must surely exercise Sue Gray.

“Nobody told me.” No - doesn’t deserve a last chance.

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