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What, if anything, does Rishi Sunak really stand for?
This question used to be far easier to answer. When he became Prime Minister last October he promised that his Government would be founded on the basis of “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.”
“Trust is earned. And I will earn yours”, he insisted.
Yet last night Sunak’s commitment to these supposedly core principles entirely evaporated.
Following five hours of debate, the House of Commons voted by 354 to just seven, to endorse a Privileges Committee report stating that Boris Johnson repeatedly lied to MPs and committed multiple serious contempts of Parliament.
The vote was a landmark moment in which members of Parliament reasserted their commitment to honesty and accountability, following a protracted period of dishonesty and outright gaslighting from the former Prime Minister and his supporters.
Those endorsing the Committee’s verdict included all opposition parties, 118 Conservative MPs, the former Prime Minister Theresa May, and the current Leader of the House Penny Mordaunt.
What they did not include was the Prime Minister himself, any other member of his Cabinet, or hundreds of other Conservative MPs.
Not only did Sunak fail to attend – engineering a series of meetings designed to prevent his appearance – but he also failed to express any opinion on the matter either
Asked repeatedly by Byline Times on Monday morning what the Prime Minister thought of the Committee’s verdict, his spokesman refused to say, replying that the Prime Minister did not want to “influence” the views of other MPs.
“I mean obviously he thinks it is right to respect the process and enable members to express their views freely without looking to influence that decision”, his spokesman said.
“It is a free vote for MPs and that will take place if it does take place.”
In the end both Downing Street and Boris Johnson himself did their best to prevent the vote taking place at all.
The former Prime Minister urged his dwindling band of supporters to stay silent when the motion was moved for a vote in the House of Commons, in order to avoid highlighting what little support he still had.
However, when Labour whips intervened to force a vote, it quickly became clear that neither Sunak, nor his Cabinet were anywhere to be seen.
Sunak’s cowardice – for there is no other word to describe it – on the question of Johnson’s dishonesty, should be a mark of real shame on his premiership.
For years members of Parliament and the voters they represent, were routinely lied to by Johnson and his administration.
While the Privileges Committee’s investigation focused on Johnson’s lies about Partygate, there are countless other examples of him deliberately misleading the nation on everything from Brexit, to his non-existent “40 new hospitals”, to disgraceful smears against his political opponents.
Throughout that entire period Sunak not only stood by Johnson, but actively helped maintain him in office. It is easily forgotten now, but Sunak’s belated resignation from Johnson’s Government last summer, which precipitated his own attempt to rise to power, was actually based on Johnson’s economic policy, rather than anything to do with honesty and integrity.
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It was only after Sunak became Prime Minister that he belatedly announced himself committed to those things.
Yet by abdicating all responsibility yesterday, at the point when it was most keenly demanded of him, Sunak has left himself badly exposed.
In the past couple of weeks multiple opinion polls have shown support for the Government falling once again. The fallout over Johnson’s resignation and the video of Conservative party staffers partying through lockdown have served to remind voters of the basic breaches of trust made by this Government.
Yesterday Sunak had an opportunity to make a clean break from that record and reassert his commitment to a more honest and decent form of politics. It was a test he has now utterly failed.