When the chips are down. When all else seems lost. At least Rishi Sunak will always have a Chris Philp. When they realised Nadhim Zahawi was not going to be fired and that Richard Sharp was not going to resign, most ministers ran for the hills. Switched off their phones. Hid under the duvet. Refused to answer the door. Just in case they were asked to go out on Tuesday’s media round. They had their pride – in a few cases, their self-worth – to consider.
But not Philp. Not the ever loyal, hopelessly devoted to Rish!, junior policing minister. A man who has never passed a pile of cold sick he wasn’t tempted to eat. Who would do anything – ANYTHING – to curry favour with the boss class. His not to wonder why, his but to do or die. And die he does, time and time again, on his feet as he’s sent out to defend the indefensible. Either his short-term memory is completely shot and he has no recollection of his past failures or he genuinely doesn’t care. Being humiliated on national TV and radio is a badge of honour.
So when the call went out for a useful idiot, our Chris answered on the first ring. Whatever it was, he was the man. It would be an honour. How could he help? Er … just by being there. Taking the hit for two hours. And was there anything he was expected to know? Definitely not. That’s one of the reasons he had been chosen for the job. Men such as Philp earn their money by going out of their way to make sure they know nothing. Not that he finds that difficult. One of the advantages of not being particularly bright. Square peg, square hole.
By Philp’s standards, Tuesday was a total success. One disaster after another. His kind of day. It turned out that saying he knew nothing about Zahawi’s tax affairs to everyone who asked didn’t close down the conversation. Rather it opened it up. How come he hadn’t gone out of his way to find out? To get the killer piece of information from No 10 that proved Nadhim hadn’t failed to declare £27m – just an accounting error to the super-rich – hadn’t paid a tax penalty and hadn’t tried to benefit from an offshore account?
Chris smiled sheepishly. He was sure Zahawi was just an everyday-kinda-guy. Someone who had just got a bit confused by his tax return. They were tricky forms. And if he had made a mistake it was just carelessness. Not negligence as the HMRC website defined carelessness. There was a difference. There was negligent carelessness. That was bad. And there was careless carelessness. That was OK. That’s the one Zahawi was guilty of. Not that he was guilty of anything. Natch.
Couldn’t we just wait until the ethics adviser reported back, Philp pleaded. Not really, said Radio 4’s Mishal Husain. Wouldn’t it just be easier if Zahawi told everyone what he had done? But this time being a wee bit more open and transparent than he had been so far. Was that too much to ask? Yes, it definitely was.
Having watched Philp fail to defend Zahawi’s reputation, Sharp turned to the airwaves to salvage what remained of his. And where else would the chairman of the BBC go for this interview but the BBC itself. Not just any part of the BBC, but the BBC’s very own safe house. Sharp was filmed in near total darkness, as if he was part of a witness protection plan.
It fell to the BBC’s culture editor, Katie Razzall, to grill her chairman. Sharp couldn’t see what the fuss was about. He was a Tory, Boris Johnson had been a Tory and the chairmanship of the BBC had always gone to a Tory. All he had to do in his exceptionally rigorous interview was to prove he was sufficiently Tory to get the nod of approval for his appointment. And it hadn’t been easy as there had been some very good other candidates.
But he had been the one who had been prepared to go the extra mile. When he had heard that Johnson was out of pocket by £800,000 and needed some spare cash, it had seemed only fair to help put him in touch with someone daft enough to guarantee his loan. After all, there weren’t many people, other than the stupidly rich and the totally venal, who would lend Boris anything as the chances of getting it back were less than zero. So when Sam Blyth had appeared on the horizon, it had seemed his moral duty to put the two men in touch with one another. It was what any chairman of the BBC would do.
So many scandals, so little time … It’s easy to forget Suella Braverman in all this. The home secretary has already been sacked once for breaches of the ministerial code. Most prime ministers would have already sacked her again. This time for just being useless at her job. Her immigration policy doesn’t work. The Met is riddled with rapists. And now scores of children have gone missing from government funded hotels for asylum seekers. Just vanished.
Braverman wasn’t in the Commons – she seldom is – to answer an urgent question, so it was left to a rather earnest Robert Jenrick to take the hit. It was all terrible, he said. But it could easily have been worse so we should be pleased that more kids had not got away. And at the end of the day, the children had it coming as it was their fault for coming to the UK as asylum seekers by boat. It was a view. If not one held by the opposition. Or even some of his own Tory MPs.
The session ended with a further urgent question, this time on the Church of England’s refusal to offer same-sex marriage. Making do with a blessing instead. Andrew Selous, the Tory church commissioner tied himself in knots. He couldn’t have been more C of E if he had tried. There were strongly held views on both sides, he said, and the bishops had gone out of their way to find a solution that pleased no one. There were strongly held views on both sides. Even bigots were allowed to have honestly held opinions.
Chris Bryant spoke movingly about the absurdity of the church’s position. Its lack of compassion. Its lack of morality. It’s rare these days for the Commons to have the moral high ground.