Boris and Gove’s treatment of British mum in Iran shows how they betray our citizens

Thom Brooks

Does anyone need convincing that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove care more for their own careers than the national interest?

First we have the “gaffe”. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been in an Iranian prison since April 2016. Held in solitary confinement, she was imprisoned for five years after a closed trial for allegedly attempting to overthrow the government, which she strenuously denies. Nazanin has been subjected to lengthy interrogations and denied regular access to her young daughter.

Johnson, the foreign secretary, made a bad situation much worse telling MPs that she was “teaching people journalism” – her family claim she was on holiday. Nazanin was dragged back to court a few days later where she was told she may face new criminal charges extending her prison sentence for an additional 16 years.

Any competent minister would realise the gravity of the mistake, withdraw these comments and issue a correction with full apology. Not so with Boris. He takes no responsibility for his words or their effects. Instead, Boris blames others for taking his remarks “taken out of context” and leaving them “misconstrued” rather than admit he got it wrong.

Understandably, Zaghari-Ratcliffe is reported by her husband to be “angry at the original comments, angry at the footage of avoiding the question” not least because it could treble her time in prison for crimes she denies.

In normal times, no prime minister could leave such a grievous deed unpunished and would proceed to an immediate sacking. But these are not normal times and Theresa May is fast becoming the weakest PM in living memory. Virtually silent and hapless like the victim in her own horror show, a government run by zombies on autopilot.

And who should be the only man in Britain to come to Boris’s defence? None other than his backstabber-in-chief Michael Gove! When asked about Nazanin’s case and why she was in Iran, Gove said “I don’t know”, thereby pouring more fuel on the fire for the Iranian authorities who appear ready to use these remarks in increasing a terrible miscarriage of justice against a British citizen. The carelessness, the lack of compassion and failure to stand up for British citizens is breathtaking and beyond contempt.

So what brings Boris and Gove together to defend the indefensible? The answer is they both realise they share a common fate and that these irresponsible comments about Nazanin are, for them, a mere side-show. Boris and Gove are two rats on a sinking ship sticking closely together with eyes on becoming its captain at almost any cost.

A 1,500 word memo penned by the duo during the summer recess and delivered to Gavin Barwell, May’s chief of staff has been leaked. In their memo, Boris and Gove issue instructions to May on how Brexit should be run issuing several demands – effectively, Cabinet ministers holding the prime minister to ransom.  

One way to describe this outrageous political stunt was how the Daily Mail put it – Boris and Gove were putting the country ahead of personal ambitions creating “an invincible double-act” in any future Tory leadership contest. Anyone who thinks there’s anything invincible about Boris or Gove forgets everything that happened in the Tory’s last leadership election – and everything about politics where nothing can be taken for granted.

There is an alternative explanation for why Boris and Gove are coming together despite their very public falling out. It’s got nothing to do with putting Britain first, but everything to do with “taking back control” for themselves at the expense of everyone or everything else. Brexit talks aren’t going well at all. Instead of trade deals being the “easiest in history” to make, talks between the UK and EU haven’t moved past the first post with 18 months left and counting. Thus far, none of the promises made by Vote Leave have been delivered as the EU and UK businesses begin to prepare for a no deal – and no win – scenario.

As cabinet ministers, Boris and Gove can wish to have done things differently but share in collective responsibility for what their government does – or does not – deliver. At the moment, this is somewhere between nothing and diddly squat. If May is unable to deliver the deal they promised voters in the referendum, she will take a large share of the blame – but the reputations of Boris and Gove may be left in tatters as the guys who promised everything and did nothing. It’s this that concerns them more than anything else and brings them together despite all that’s happened between the two since the referendum vote was won.

May is left in a catch-22 situation. She requires every vote she can get with a minority government. Brexit has split the Tories on Europe like never before and to sack both risks both creating rebellious backbenchers with nothing more to lose. Yet failing to sack disloyal ministers from your cabinet – or even being perceived as unable to do so – is every bit as damaging.

This is a government in name only for all to see – and never at a worse time with so much at stake over Brexit. In single-mindedly looking after the interests of their personal careers, Boris and Gove not only weaken any hopes for the Brexit they campaigned for creating a better deal and stronger ties outside the EU, but seem ready to run rough shod over supporting British citizens around the world.

Thom Brooks is dean of Durham Law School.

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