Chris Grayling has finally exceeded himself: he has managed to lose a rigged election.
Indeed, he went further. Having lost out to a fellow Tory, Julian Lewis, to be chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Number 10 and the whips were so furious that they took the Tory whip off Lewis, effectively chucking him out of the Conservative party. That in turn has given the media a far bigger story to run with – and reminded everyone just how desperate Boris Johnson is to suppress the committee’s report into Russian interference in British democracy, and any role it may have played in the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum.
A routine bit of party management has been turned into a constitutional crisis, and Chris Grayling was right in the thick of it. Not since he compared Manchester’s Moss Side to The Wire has "Failing Grayling" added such gaiety to the nation. Someone please give him his own show.
There’s speculation that, to keep the farce alive, some obscure and contrived tactics will be used to unseat Lewis from this supposedly “independent” committee, handing the role of chair to Grayling again. In that, there is no guarantee of success. Tory MPs will wonder why they’re being asked to rescue Grayling, yet again, and might actually feel a bit sorry for Lewis, who appears a somewhat harmless old buffer. If he can be so brutally dismissed, then no one is safe; they might be more inclined to protect him.
Like all the best comedy, there’s something dark going on too, and it is fairly plain to see on this occasion. Agent Grayling, absurd as it may seem, was Number 10’s secret weapon in its attempt to eliminate independent scrutiny of its actions, and to do what it likes in the field of national security. Independent-minded advice is out; absolute rule by Johnson and Dominic Cummings is in. That is why they forced Sir Mark Sedwill out of his role as National Security Adviser, and replaced him with a political appointee, David Frost. It is a highly suspicious and disturbing development.
As with the continuing wider efforts – which will intensify – to evade media attention, bully the BBC, curb the Supreme Court, politicise the civil service, suppress the franchise and crush parliamentary dissent, this is a government that regards itself as “the people’s government” yet has a mandate to do as it likes: an elective dictatorship.
The only saving grace is that Number 10 is so incompetent at its grab for power. That's why we've seen so many U-turns and mix-ups over the coronavirus crisis. Not quite in the Grayling league for cluelessness, perhaps, but they are failing too.
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There will be much more of this, much more. To be quite fair to the government, much of its plan to roll back the frontiers of liberal democracy was laid out in the Conservative manifesto at the last general election, though a little opaque and short on detail. Obviously no one read page 48 where much of this was set down, including the casual commitment to get rid of the Human Rights Act, but there it was, and it will be taken as a mandate to dismantle the checks and balances on prime ministerial power. It is also true that people did know what they were voting for last year: the Johnson gang had misled the Queen, after all, into proroguing Parliament unlawfully, among other japes.
However, none of that justifies what the prime minister is getting up to, and how sinister it really is, because they never dared to spell it out in detail to people. This government is exploiting and abusing every weakness in our unwritten constitution - and there are plenty of them.
The British constitution mostly works on conventions and trust. That, by the way, includes respecting the rights of the Scottish Parliament, currently gleefully being trashed. It will have grave consequences.