In a previous article I suggested that we may be at the beginning of a new scandal known as “Lettergate” which could be even greater than Watergate in the US.That particular story has died down, at least for now, as nothing more has been heard of Chris Heaton-Harris and his demands to know what universities are teaching about Brexit.
But has the scandal gone away? Not a bit of it. Boris Johnson is part of it, and so are various other senior political figures who are supposed to be doing their jobs. It explains their recent actions, which are consistent with what often happens in dependent, developing countries, but should never be happening in the mature democracies which go round telling everyone else how to behave.
Dark arts with bright inspirations
We know, thanks to the internet publication of the “unredacted list”, that the UK Conservative Party keeps lists of things it can blackmail people over to keep them in line. We also know that there would be no point compiling this list if there was no intention of blackmailing these people—sooner or later.
We know that Chris Heaton-Harris is one of the people on that list, and that his actions were consistent with the position of certain newspaper magnates but not actual government policy. These are the press barons now telling people to stop complaining about the proposed return of blue UK passports, rather than burgundy coloured EU ones, who apparently no longer believe that a range of opinions is permitted in a Western democracy.
We also know that the UK government is running scared of these unelected newspaper magnates, and always has. They are giving the orders, the government follows them. So we can assume that if an MP who can be blackmailed is doing things the government daren’t do openly, the order has come from the newspapers and the MP has been told to go along with it by the government, on pain of his career being terminally damaged.
The Heaton-Harris letter proved an embarrassment, so we are not hearing any further news about it. But who is getting in the papers now, and what are they saying? A pattern is emerging which highlights what is really going on, much as the evidence concerning Watergate accumulated over time, often in stories which were inconsequential in themselves when compared to others then floating around.
Attack dog with too many teeth
Kwasi Kwarteng is the Conservative MP for Spelthorne, which is the area round Heathrow Airport. He does not have an entry against his name on the “unredacted list” of blackmailable Conservative MPs. But he appears in two other entries – apparently the married Kwarteng has had sexual relations with Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, and Liz Truss, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
This may explain why he has been making statements about freedom of movement after Brexit. The proposed return of the blue passport, which could actually have been blue all along if the UK had wanted it to be, has focused attention on this issue. Although the Leave campaign made a lot of noises about curbing immigration during the referendum campaign, Britons still wanted to be able to travel freely within the EU whenever they chose. Differentiating UK and EU passports, though described as “the first, real tangible victory” for Leave voters by Nigel Farage, has understandably raised concern that this may no longer be possible after Brexit.
So who is wheeled out to reassure voters that tough new EU border controls will not be applied to them? Not an immigration minister, but Kwarteng, whose job in government is Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer – he deals with finance, not immigration. He is insisting, on his word, that British travellers will be exempt from these new controls after Brexit, despite there not yet being any agreement which says so.
It might be true that UK travellers will be looked on favourably, but there is no guarantee. At present, this statement falls into the same category as the notorious claim that the UK gave £350 million a week to the EU and this could be used to fund the National Health Service (NHS) instead – a theoretical possibility, but very unlikely to actually happen, and not part of any agreement, anywhere, with anyone.
The Leave campaign has taken a lot of stick for making this claim on the side of its big red campaign bus, and then trying to distance itself from it after the event. If any of the heavy hitters of that campaign tried to claim now that it will actually happen they would damage their cause further. So who is trying to talk up Brexit by claiming this statement is actually true? You guessed it, Kwarteng.
No government would dare commit itself to £350 million extra a week for the NHS when it does not know how much money it will have at the date Brexit is supposed to happen. But the newspaper magnates want people to believe this lie, so Kwarteng has been leaned on to propagate it. He does so by saying that if the UK really does send that much money to the EU, it will be in the UK budget in 2019 and then the Chancellor can theoretically give it all to the NHS. But if that money actually exists, it is equally true that he can give it to anything else – there is not now, and nor has there ever been, a government policy commitment to do anything of the sort.
The claims made by Kwarteng cannot be the agenda of the government he is a junior member of. But they are agenda of the newspaper magnates who demanded Brexit, and are believed by people the government wants to keep onside to protect itself.
Kwarteng is being used to pursue an unofficial policy when he is part of the government which has an official one. Should this be allowed to happen in a parliamentary democracy, in which the government and individual MPs are supposed to be accountable to the people?
Suffering fools badly
Kwarteng’s sudden interventions are not the only suspicious activities involving pro-Leave MPs. David Davis, the chief Brexit negotiator, has been making an almighty fool of himself since he got the job – not preparing for talks, getting drunk, giving in to everything the EU wants and presenting it as a victory. But he is still in a job, and many people are now asking why.
One of the other MPs on the blackmail list, Damian Green, has been forced to resign after a police investigation showed he had once downloaded thousands of pornographic images on his office computer. When the story of the police investigation broke, Davis insisted he would himself resign if Green were sacked over it.
However Davis has not resigned, because he says Green was sacked for lying about what he had done, not for actually having pornography on his computer. What’s the difference? The government enquiry into Green’s behaviour concluded that he had breached the ministerial code by lying about his offence, so Theresa had to sack him. But this made the question of whether he had broken the code by downloading porn irrelevant, so it wasn’t commented on. That is the only reason he was not sacked for the reason Davis said he would resign over.
Damian Green was already on the blackmail list – the citation reads “Ashley Madison – handsy at parties”. He was in effect Deputy Prime Minister in his role as First Secretary of State. He was also a Remainer, like Theresa May herself, and his departure isolates her further.
But he has gone, whilst arch-Leaver Davis remains in place and manages to avoid being charged with contempt of parliament over his failure to release the studies into the impact of Brexit on the economy. First he saidthese existed, then he didn’t. The full texts of those which were eventually released are only available to MPs in a special reading room, provided they leave their phones and any recording equipment outside – and the portions released to the public are full of banalities and very light on assessment.
Liam Fox, the once-disgraced Defence Minister who was brought back as the International Trade Minister, is also on the blackmail list, the charge against his name being two words: “Adam Werrity”. Mr. Werrity was the reason Fox was sacked as Defence Minister. This man accompanied him on dozens of official trips as an adviser, despite not being a member of the civil service, in contradiction of the ministerial code.He also lived rent-free in Fox’s London flat, and ran a business from Fox’s room on the parliamentary estate.None of this was initially declared to the appropriate regulatory authorities.
Fox is also still in a job, and his relationship with Adam Werrity is still something he can be blackmailed over, or he would not be on the list. Fox is another arch-Leaver who makes up policy as he goes along, whilst being a member of a government which can’t say such things out loud. It is hard to see how the UK government, rather than the Brexit newspaper magnates, could be making these decisions.
To top it all, the usual suspect
It will surprise no one that Boris Johnson, who converted to the Leave campaign at the last minute as a veiled leadership bid and was then made Foreign Secretary to screw him up, also appears on the blackmail list alongside the text “NDA (non-disclosure agreement) between him and Danielle Fleet (Philip Davies’ researcher)”. Boris is not very good at remembering exactly what sort of relationship he has had with several women, or how many children he has, so we can only speculate what it is he and Fleet won’t disclose. But despite this, and his seemingly endless gaffes, he too is still in a job, as Russia recently discovered.
On December 22nd Johnson met Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, and then held a press conference in which he spouted his usual doublespeak and still expected to be listened to. His claim this time was that Russia was interfering in foreign elections all over the place, but that it had not been able to influence the Brexit referendum, in which it is accused of making cyber attacks which benefited the Leave campaign.
Apparently the sophisticated cyber systems of various governments are easily hacked by Russia, but Vote Leave’s system was impervious. Either that or these attacks had no effect on the Brexit referendum. Nevertheless they are undermining democracy elsewhere on a regular basis.
Why did Johnson say this? The investigation into Russia’s involvement in the election of Donald Trump is front page news in the UK as well as the US. The Brexit supporting newspapers are sensitive to charges that their campaign is actually a con, and that they are working for foreign governments who don’t care about the UK and its people. With the pound continuing to tank, and even Brexit supporters in government telling people they will just have to “get by” after Brexit, this sensitivity increases by the day.
As Johnson admitted, there are many points of contention between the UK and Russia. He therefore maintained that he was seeking to normalise relations between the two countries. But his first press conference consisted of this extraordinary mixture of threats and exculpation – Russia is very bad, but the only bad thing it never did is to have interfered in the Brexit referendum.
Does a government which wants to repair relations with another country behave like this? When Justin Trudeau met Donald Trump he acknowledged “significant differences of approach”, but only attacked US policy indirectly, and some while after the meeting, though the difference between Trudeau’s inclusiveness and Trump’s victimisation of foreigners is a huge one. If Johnson had been doing the government’s bidding, he would have done the same. Instead he made the one point the newspaper owners wanted someone to make – that they are not working with Russia; this is because Russia is bad.
You can believe anything of Boris Johnson. Maybe he did intend to make a diplomatic speech, and then changed his mind with a microphone in front of him. But saying that Russia is all bad, but not where the Brexit referendum was concerned. It is not the UK government position – indeed his Prime Minister has said exactly the opposite. Apparently even the Foreign Secretary is acting under orders which do not come from his own government.
No news would be better news
A lot of countries are effectively run by outside interests – the CIA, energy companies, crime syndicates, foreign sponsors of different kinds. This is one reason why Third World countries produce dictators – with so little effective power, their rulers become despots to try and get to the same level as democratic rulers, who have a freer hand.
But this should not be the case in a parliamentary democracy with hundreds of years of tradition behind it. In such countries the public should know who is really giving the orders. You don’t elect parliaments by universal suffrage to enable unelected press barons to pursue their private policies regardless – and nor do you create a situation where none of the institutions of state, from the government to the courts, have any interest in doing anything about it.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.