Famously, Boris Johnson likes to wheel out a classical allusion…
Fiddling whilst Rome burned, the Emperor Nero has long been the epitome for the self-indulgent ruler, entirely oblivious to the needs of his people. He was a sexually incontinent narcissist and parasite, born to the purple and convinced that the world existed merely to satisfy him.
Perhaps the best that might be said of him was that he didn’t possess the determined vindictiveness, nor the blinkered cruelty, of his predecessor. This was Caligula, a man who responded to the merest frustration with murder. His excesses had taken to such extremes as to threaten the fabric of the empire – the arbitrary killings, the castrations for entertainment and the making a horse a senator.
That insult to the senate, positing the senators as no more worthy or competent than his horse, spoke of the same impulse as his self-deification. Caligula was to be, not emperor, but an unfettered god, possessed of all power, of life and death as a matter of entire whim. At least with Nero you could give him another woman or some more cake and he’d be happily occupied for a while. But for Caligula, the existence of a senate to whom he might have to answer was an effrontery. An effrontery to be ignored and ridden roughshod over, at least until it was simply dispensed with altogether.
A god does not have a senate
On Monday 31 January the much anticipated Sue Gray report was published. Except, it wasn’t – the Metropolitan Police made an intervention deemed to be both mystifying and spurious by many a legal mind, requiring that Gray decline to mention certain matters that the Met had, at last, if kicking and screaming, deemed to be possibly worthy of investigation. So we merely got Gray’s “update”.
Boris Johnson, Prime Minister and chief suspect in a number of these incidents now subject to the Met’s investigation, was constrained to give a statement to the House. He began on a note of contrition, but that tone did not survive for very long, and the more familiar blustering bully-boy Bullingdon brat soon reasserted itself. A spoiled Nero flapped about, aghast that his deigning to say sorry was not the end of the matter. Did these people now know who he was?
There’s a great deal might be said about the whole palaver, and plenty are saying it. I’ll reserve my comment to one particular moment, which may have passed by as just more of his scatter gun brattery, but I think is of the most profound import for understanding what he is, and, by extension, what his regime is. I also think it’s the moment that actually destroys him.
Johnson’s Jimmy Saville accusation
Keir Starmer had been answering the Prime Minister with a much more measured tone, the demeanour of a lawyer. Whilst this attitude has sometimes rather worked against Starmer, for this moment it was on point. And it compelled Johnson, so obviously on the ropes, into a desperate corner. Gone was the petulance of Nero, now came the unfettered malignancy of Caligula.
Referencing Starmer’s time as Director of the CPS in 2009, Johnson said that Starmer “used his time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile, as far as I can see”.
This is the Prime Minister of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland presenting a long standing extreme right-wing trope, that Keir Starmer colluded in the suppression of Savile’s paedophile crimes, and thereby facilitated his continuing to offend. It has long since been utterly debunked. But I’m afraid we’re not talking the sort of people who are going to let a fact get in the way when there are people to be stoked into extremism.
Just a few hours later, that same evening, Nadine Dorries was interviewed by Krishnan Guru-Murthy for Channel 4 News, and he challenged her:
“One of the things that the Prime Minister said today in the House of Commons and was basically untrue, and clearly untrue, was his allegation that Keir Starmer was responsible for not prosecuting Jimmy Savile. How can you have a Prime Minister just repeating fake news like that?”
Dorries’ response was embarrassing bluster and whatabouttery. But she made no effort to defend Johnson’s accusation. She was not going to go on record repeating such a slander. But, if it is slander, I hear you say, why didn’t Starmer act on it the moment Johnson made it? Why isn’t Starmer taking him to court?
The following morning Dominic Raab appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme, and Nick Robinson took him to task on the same point, but more precisely:
“You are, as I say, not just Deputy Prime Minster, but Justice Secretary. The Prime Minister made an extraordinary and baseless allegation against Sir Keir Starmer yesterday. Without parliamentary privilege, would you repeat that allegation against Keir Starmer?”
Raab’s response was an extremely hesitant flannel suggesting that “this was the cut and thrust of, er, parliamentary debate”, but Nick Robinson wasn’t having it:
“So an allegation that former… Director of Public Prosecutions, a man knighted for his work, protected a serial sex offender, you’re saying is the normal cut and thrust of British politics?”
“Look, um, er, I’m, I’m certainly not repeating it”, and from there Raab launched upon further flannel until interrupted.
Nick Robinson: “Does any minister have evidence of what the prime minister said under the protection of parliamentary privilege?”
Raab: “I haven’t done a trawl of ministers to check that”. There followed even more flannel, and an effort to divert the exchange into other things from Keir Starmer’s past. But Nick Robinson wasn’t going to be diverted:
“…It’s very obvious what you’re doing. This is a smear, this is a smear against a leading politician and you won’t distance yourself from it.”
Lies and parliamentary priviledge
Nick Robinson and Krishnan Guru-Murthy can describe references to Jimmy Savile as “clearly untrue” and “a smear” quite freely with no qualification. Government ministers were unable make any substantial counter to such descriptions for one simple reason – it would be career ending and leave them open to extremely costly legal action.
Because it’s a lie, and it’s a demonstrable lie at that.
Johnson could only do it because of parliamentary privilege. This exempts anything said by MPs during the business of parliament in the House of Commons from any control or limitation. No law, for slander for instance, no injunction, can prevent our MPs saying whatever they like. Well, almost whatever they like, but we’ll come back to that.
Perhaps the most famous instance of reliance upon parliamentary privilege in recent times prior to this week was back in May 2011 when John Hemming MP named Ryan Giggs as the footballer who had won an injunction against being named as the mystery footballer caught in an extra marital affair. Giggs had placed his injunction, but that could not prevent an MP speaking in the House, and so the secret was out.
Hemming did this because there was grave concern that a growing use of “superinjunctions” – injunctions that not only prevented the press from reporting an accusation, but prevented them from reporting that they’d been prevented – was corroding both free speech and accountability.
But it works both ways. Johnson could state an out and out slander, very readily actionable and likely to be very expensive in any other context, with impunity, because of parliamentary privilege. Starmer can raise no case in our courts. Johnson could say anything. He was protected.
Outside the chamber
But neither Dorries nor Raab would enjoy that protection outside of the chamber, and they were therefore very careful to not speak in express support of the actual slander. All they could do was equivocate around it.
But the damage is done. And various far right types spent the following day delighting in spreading the lie as far and wide as possible. After all, the Prime Minister said it – it MUST be true! Starmer possibly colluded, but certainly facilitated, the paedophilia and rapine of Jimmy Savile.
And it continues
On Thursday morning, Nick Robinson continued the pursuit of the regime’s defence of their leader as faithful James Cleverly took to Radio 4 to talk about other things (as if anyone now cared about those other things).
Nick Robinson: “In your view, does Keir Starmer deserve any blame for the disgusting crimes of Jimmy Savile?… Are you suggesting he could have prosecuted if only he’d cared?”
Cleverly attempted an equivocation. But Nick Robinson was not be put off.
“Why is it worth raising at all?…Of course it’s a smear and you know it’s a smear. It’s a deliberate attempt to distract.”
It would be unfair of me to not mention that before James Cleverly attempted his craven yet doomed effort at a defence, a number of Conservative MPs had published their disavowal of their leader’s foray into Goebeleseque character assassination (Julian Smith, Stephen Hammond and Anthony Mangnall to name but three).
An anonymous “senior MP” was quoted on Newsnight on Wednesday evening saying that it had gone down very badly with many Tory MPs. It should also be noted that a group that represents Savile’s victims have also urged the Prime minister to retract his smear. But the damage is done – he has leant the authority of his office – the highest office in the land – to a trope of extreme right-wing propaganda.
His erstwhile chum, Donald Trump, would be proud.
Things are moving fast in the world of politics. There have been three resignations of officials today. Oh – did I say “three”? Looks like The Times is saying four. It’s so hard to keep track.
The Neroesque indulgence of parties whilst a country locked down to protect the vulnerable is foul, but it lends itself to the excuses of those who want to pretend “it was just a cake”. But the Caligulaesque weaponizing of parliamentary privilege – that is something else.
For one, none of the regime can be seen to give it a full throated defence because that will leave them liable to a career ending action in law that would likely lead to a house-selling demand for damages. Everyone with but the vaguest understanding of how law works and what parliament is knows that Johnson just nakedly weaponised the constitution to partisan ends.
Prorogation and Brexit
And if he did so here… well, there was the prorogation. It’s been established by the Supreme Court that that was unlawful, but they could say they got it wrong and were corrected, couldn’t they? They could hardly reach for that defence now. We know that Johnson is content to weaponise the constitution against us. We just caught him at it. And no one can defend him (well, no-one will ). He can’t defend himself. He isn’t going to repeat that smear in public, outside of parliament. Or, if he does, he’ll quickly pay for it.
He’s left his party without a fig leaf. They know what he’s done. They know what it amounts to. They know it’s now naked before the nation, and all but the profoundly stupid or insanely bigoted can see it. It suggests that when he prorogued parliament its being unlawful or unconstitutional was perfectly irrelevant to him. And if this really is how sees the country – as just his nest of indulgence within which he is to be placated, pleasured, indulged and obeyed – then what was behind Brexit? Did he ever really believe it could be better for the country? Did he ever let the question of the benefits or deficits to the country enter his thinking? Did it ever matter?
Are we, all of us, indeed, the very country, just collateral damage to the pursuit of the satisfaction of his appetites? Is there nothing he will not do to satisfy those appetites?
I mentioned that you can say almost anything under parliamentary privilege. In the same sitting as Johnson saw fit to promulgate the rantings of the far-right, the very sorts of far-right people who shot Jo Cox in the face, Ian Blackford, Leader of the SNP at Westminster, accused Johnson, the man who had just accused Keir Starmer of being, at best, a paedophile facilitator, of misleading the House. That the smear was misleading is beyond question – but irrelevant. In parliament a member may not accuse another member of lying.
And so we were faced with the unedifying and absurd sight of Ian Blackford being required to leave the House, as a punishment, because he accused the man who had just mislead the House – of misleading the House.