MPs questioned a top civil servant yesterday on Tory sleaze and government leaks as he did his level best not to answer. In a session likened to a “badly scripted version of Yes Minister“, Simon Case gave evidence to the public administration and constitutional affairs committee in a wide-ranging discussion. Some compared his answers to a Line of Duty interview in which a character said “no comment” 32 times. MPs asked about the leaking of the lockdown plan last October, whether Dominic Cummings was or was not cleared, Boris Johnson allegedly considering an intervention on behalf of a pal of his fiancee, the Greensill Capital saga and the PM’s flat refurb. Committee members were, to say the least, disappointed as the Cabinet Secretary stonewalled.
The session of course followed the incendiary comment attributed to the PM on Monday morning, in which he allegedly said he would rather “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” than order a third lockdown. Johnson has denied the comment and Michael Gove told parliament yesterday: “I was in that room, I never heard language of that kind.” This morning brought fresh scandal from the mouth of the PM. According to The Times, Johnson allegedly told Downing Street aides in September last year that he would rather “let it [the virus] rip” than implement another lockdown. But is the “sewage of allegations”, as described by Rachel Reeves, breaking through? According to new polling, yes – 50% reported that “there is a culture of sleaze in the UK government”.
One question is whether it translates into electoral returns next month. Ipsos Mori research showed a five-point drop in support for the Tories yesterday. It had the Conservatives on 40%, down from 45% last month and just three points ahead of Labour. And it is worth noting that respondents gave their answers between April 16th and 22nd, before the “bodies pile high” and “let it rip” allegations emerged. This is good news for Labour, suggesting that Tory sleaze, from Greensill Capital to the PM’s flat, was already cutting through, and the latest developments in the Johnson-Cummings psychodrama can only add fuel to the flames.
On the flip side, Ipsos Mori found that optimism on the economy is at its highest since 2014; 86% of people praised the government on the vaccine roll-out; two-thirds backed ministers over timing of the ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown; and 42% thought the PM has “done well” during the pandemic while 46% felt he has “done badly”. Keir Starmer’s score was 29-28%. Meanwhile, another survey put Johnson’s overall approval rating at +9, compared to -1 for the Labour leader. Ministers are hoping the public do not care about sleaze. Theresa Coffey claimed today that people are not interested in “some wallpaper or sofas” as she dismissed the seriousness of questions over who paid for the PM’s flat refurb. But, as Jonathan Ashworth pointed out, it does matter because “we need to know who he is beholden to”.
The Shadow Health Secretary took to the telly this morning to discuss his call for a “fully resourced rescue plan” to bring down NHS waiting times, which have skyrocketed. Research from Labour shows that 366,194 people have been left waiting for more than a year for treatment. This figure stood at 1,643 in January 2020. The Tories have mired the government in sleaze while people suffer. “It’s crazy, when the country is in such a mess, that this is what they are focusing on,” Ashworth added. “The country deserves better than this.” Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.