OPERATION REBRAND:Munira Mirza
Framing the abandonment of a sinking ship as an act of laudable moral courage is the British media’s latest laughable act, says Mic Wright
The news that Munira Mirza, the Downing Street head of policy, had resigned – and indeed the full text of her resignation letter – was broken by James Forsyth, the Spectator’s political editor.
Another way of framing that event is: a man whose own wife, Allegra Stratton, resigned from working for Boris Johnson revealed that a woman married to one of his close friends, Dougie Smith – who also works in Downing Street – was quitting; something that could be extremely useful for his best friend and best man, who just so happens to be the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak.
There’s a phenomenon in the British media that I like to term ‘convenient credibility’. It occurs when political journalists and commentators entirely dispense with scepticism and cynicism to take a statement at face value because it is convenient to do so.
Convenient credibility is out in force today as Mirza’s expressed reason for resigning – disgust at the Prime Minister’s Jimmy Savile jibe attacking Labour Leader Keir Starmer – is taken at face value.
How plausible is it that someone could spend 14 years working with Boris Johnson before realising that his moral character is akin to that of an alley cat who other alley cats think is a bit much? For most British political journalists, the answer seems to be: very.
This is the same Munira Mirza who defended Johnson’s 2018 Telegraph column in which he referred to women who wear the burka as “letterboxes” and “bank robbers” as “reasonable, balanced and a thoughtful defence of Muslim women’s right to choose how they live”.
The year before, she had dismissed anti-racism movements as a “bogus moral crusade”.
Whitehall insiders have said she brought that same attitude to examinations of race and inequality during her time in Government, spiking – an apposite word – any real discussion of structural racism and instead emphasising tenuous claims about “cultural factors”.
A profile of Mirza in today’s Times also skips delicately over her political education:
“After Oldham Sixth Form College, Mirza studied English at Mansfield College, Oxford. When she arrived, in 1996, Mansfield was home to a small, tight-knit community. ‘There were about 60 of us in a year. She was friendly, chatty,’ a contemporary said. ‘When she spoke in JCR meetings it was very clipped, very incisive. She rapidly became involved in the whole Living Marxism crowd’.
“…She studied for her sociology PhD under Frank Furedi, founder of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which was disbanded within months of Mirza’s arrival at Oxford. She wrote for Living Marxism, the in-house RCP journal, and after it was shut down in 2000 she became a contributor to its successor, the website Spiked.”
That narrative conspicuously avoids mentioning why Living Marxism closed – it lost a ruinous libel action after its Bosnian genocide denial led it to claim that ITN had faked a report – or details on Furedi’s work, which includes a book called Moral Crusades in an Age of Mistrust: The Jimmy Savile Scandal that makes Johnson’s line look decidedly mild.
Also missing from the Times’ analysis of Mirza is any detail on what she wrote for Spiked. Her contributions included pieces headlined ‘Stop Pandering to Muslims’, ‘The Press Should Be Free to Ridicule Islam’, ‘Diversity is Divisive’ and ‘Lammy Review: The Myth of Institutional Racism’. In 2017, she appeared on The Spiked Podcast to “warn about the dangers of fearmongering about racism”.
In her resignation letter, Mirza told the Prime Minister that his attack on Starmer was “not the normal cut-and-thrust of politics” but “an inappropriate and partisan reference to a horrendous case of child sex abuse”. The next paragraph undermines that outrage as she notes that she has served Johnson for “14 years” and calls him “a man of extraordinary abilities” who is “a better man than many of [his] detractors will ever understand”.
Mirza – who presided over the controversial and widely condemned Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report, which the UN described as an attempt to “normalise white supremacy” and which “[repackaged] racist tropes and stereotypes into fact” – is being presented as someone who resigned on principle. But the timing and context matters.
This is a resignation after 14 years of defending Boris Johnson, when her political patron is fatally weakened.
I thought that one Downing Street official’s comment on the effect on Johnson of losing Mirza – “Boris will feel more sorrow than Mary did watching Christ on the cross” – was the most ridiculous element of this episode in the Prime Minister’s decline. But I was wrong. The truly ludicrous part has come with political journalists framing the abandonment of a sinking ship as an act of laudable moral courage.
LBC’s political correspondent, Ben Kentish, wrote: “Munira Mirza could have left Government quietly, in a way that wouldn’t have damaged Boris Johnson. That her resignation letter is so critical and has been made public is notable. Seems designed to have maximum effect.”
It was – and the intended effect was not just to hurt Boris Johnson, but to burnish Munira Mirza; to rebrand her as a moral example. It is truly laughable that it seems to have worked.