Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
Boris Johnson’s passion for the classics is well known. But unlike Emmanuel Macron, who once spoke about the need for a “Jupiterian” presidency, I don’t think that our Prime Minister has ever likened himself to a figure from Greco-Roman myth. The closest he ever came was some rather contrived wordplay between between “Boris” and “Boreas”, god of the north wind.
However, there is one character he could be compared with — and that is Hercules (or Heracles if you prefer). Johnson may not be as physically impressive as the muscle-bound hero, but as Prime Minister he’s tackled a series of tasks that can only be described as Herculean: getting Brexit done; beating back Covid (both nationally and personally); leading the world on climate change; levelling-up the North. Whether of not one considers Johnson to be a great man, there’s no doubting the greatness of the challenges he’s faced.
Hercules is famed for undertaking twelve labours. Most of these involved killing or capturing some kind of fabulous beast — from the multi-headed Hydra to the flesh-eating Mares of Diomedes.
However, his fifth labour stands out from all the others. That’s because it appears to be so mundane. All it involved was cleaning out some stables. Not exactly the stuff of legend. Except that these were the stables of King Augeus. They housed 3,000 animals — and hadn’t been cleaned out for 30 years. Even worse, Hercules had just one day to complete the task. So what at first sight looks like the least dangerous of all his labours came closest to defeating him.
Johnson ought to pay close attention to this tale because he has his own Augean stables to clean out: the Houses of Parliament. In the space of a few weeks, “sleaze” has done more damage to his poll ratings that all his mistakes on Brexit, Covid and the economy put together.
As with the original Augean stables, this almighty mess is the result of years of neglect — for which multiple Prime Ministers are to blame. It is Johnson’s misfortune that matters have reached crisis point on his watch. Then again, he made his own bad luck by handling the Owen Paterson affair so ineptly. In any case, he owns the sleaze issue now. Unless he can make it go away, it has the potential to bury him.
Of course, by international standards, this is a molehill – not a mountain of political ordure. We’re not talking about criminal corruption here, but the interpretation of rules governing self-imposed standards in public life. However, that’s why this sorry episode is so infuriating: it was all so avoidable.
There should never have been any confusion over the rules on lobbying. There’s an obvious problem with a serving MP being paid by private interests to do what he or she is elected to do in the public interest.
So the rules should have been clear — absolutely no political consultancy work under any circumstances. If they had been clear, then Paterson would still be an MP today.
The Government’s approach — to clear up the mess only after someone’s stepped in it — isn’t going to wash. There are just too many other piles lying in wait. In fact, piles upon piles, because all of these issues raise further issues. As our Editor explains here, the Prime Minister finds himself caught between two factions of his Parliamentary party — the “Red Wallers” and the “Blue Jobbers” — over the wider question of MPs having second jobs.
This in turn leads to an even wider question — what are MPs for? — which has also been left unresolved for too long. And it doesn’t stop with the House of Commons either. Constitutionally, the House of Lords is a half-finished building site abandoned by a long-defunct firm of cowboy builders (i.e. New Labour). It’s a hopelessly confused situation in which the combination of politics, patronage, public standards and money is bound to generate further problems.
And that’s the trouble with the Government’s minimalist approach to cleaning out the Augean Stables. Making very specific changes in response to a particular scandal opens you up to the charge of having done too little too late when the next one happens.
The alternative is to get out in front of the issue — and deal with the whole mess before it buries you.
The question that Johnson should ask himself is this: what would Hercules do? I’m assuming he already knows the answer. Faced with the impossible task of shovelling so much, er, material in the space of one day, Hercules took radical action. He diverted the course of the rivers Alpheus and Peneus so that they flowed through the stables and literally washed the problem away. Job done.
The two cleansing forces that the Prime Minister must harness are constitutional reform and party reform. For a start, it’s time to stop making excuses for the House of Lords. It should either be turned into a properly democratic chamber or abolished.
As for the House of Commons, let’s recognise the reality of what it means to be an MP these days. The old model of the gentleman legislator is just that — a relic of the past. With billions about to be spent on renovating the physical fabric of the Palace of Westminster, we need to update its working practices too.
That’s both for the good of the constitution and the Conservative Party. The current disparity between some Tory MPs straining every sinew to hold on to the Red Wall while others busy themselves with lucrative outside employments, isn’t just unfair: it is also electorally unsustainable. The result of the Chesham and Amersham by-election — plus the last set of local elections — is a warning that the party cannot take its southern heartlands for granted either.
In this time of political realignment, every Conservative-held seat should be regarded as marginal. Thus every Tory MP needs to make a full-time commitment to their parliamentary and governmental duties. This, by happy coincidence, would also mean that the vexed issue of second jobs would be rendered irrelevant.
As we’re now seeing with the rules on lobbying, reform is a matter of when not if. The Government can either be dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century — allowing the opposition to extract every ounce of partisan advantage — or it can take the initiative and lead the process of change.
It is of course incumbent on any Conservative to take care with the constitution— but that is more easily achieved when one is in charge of the course of events, not swept along by them.
So go on, Boris — be a hero.