One of the rules that they have been shredding most aggressively is the concept of ministerial responsibility. Under previous governments of many different complexions, this idea has been central to how democratic politics is supposed to work. When things go wrong, the minister is accountable to parliament and must answer to the public for his department’s failings. When things go badly wrong, the minister resigns. Ministerial responsibility is at the core of the compact between government, parliament and public. Bronwen Maddox, the director of the Institute for Government, has it right when she says: “Unless there are consequences for ministers of the decisions that are their responsibility, the UK’s principles of democratic accountability will become meaningless.”
When searching for somewhere else to throw the blame, their first choice is civil servants, who make convenient targets because they are not supposed to answer back. So out goes Sally Collier, chief executive of Ofqual, the regulator, over the grading fiasco. Following her overboard goes Jonathan Slater, the permanent secretary at the Department for Education, who was sacked in a fashion brutal even by the standards of the current regime. Mr Williamson, meantime, stumbles on towards his next appointment with calamity in an apparent determination to make Chris Grayling feel a bit better about his time in government.
In an even darker part of the forest, there is a manifest effort to manipulate inquiries into the handling of the coronavirus crisis by shifting culpability from the prime minister and his lieutenants. Sir Mark Sedwill was effectively fired as cabinet secretary in June after anonymous briefings to Number 10-friendly media designed to depict him as bearing prime responsibility for the numerous failures to get a grip on the emergency. Public Health England, which is to be scrapped before there is any full accounting of who was responsible for which errors, is also being cast as a scapegoat.
The character of government is shaped by the personality of the person at the top. When he was US president, Harry Truman had a sign on his Oval Office desk that was inscribed: “The buck stops here.” If Boris Johnson had a sign, it would read: “Not me, guv.” Anyone familiar with his biography knows that he does not feel constrained by conventional norms of behaviour and nor will he willingly shoulder responsibility for his bad choices. His career is potholed with scandals, mendacities and betrayals of trust. Having got to the pinnacle of the greasy pole all the same, he has concluded that, providing your skin is thick enough and your reserves of shamelessness are deep enough, there is no scandal so enormous or blunder so titanic that it cannot be brazened out.