By any measure, yesterday was not a comfortable day for the prime minister.
Questions about contracts at PMQs. A grilling on sleaze in the afternoon debate on Owen Paterson. Questions about his own father who faced two accusations of sexual assault, in committee and then a haggard appearance in front of aggrieved back benchers at the 1922 committee.
With a line up like that you’d be willing a good news story to land on your desk. It seems unlikely that the High Court is going to provide him with that.
Judges are this week examining the Priti Patel bullying affair, after the FDA union lodged a judicial review of Johnson’s decision to deviate from advice and absolve her of punishment.
In a report published last November, independent adviser Sir Alex Allan concluded that Priti Patel’s behaviour towards her staff, which included shouting and swearing, met the definition of bullying adopted by the civil service.
Having urged colleagues to “form a square around The Prittster”, Johnson, as arbiter of the ministerial code, decided that Patel had not fallen foul of the rules because her behaviour was not intentional.
It’s that judgement that is being put to the test, and the court is expected to wrap up sittings today before the judges retire to deliberate.
General secretary of the FDA trade union, Dave Penman, says this ‘unintentional’ defence has offered a clear “get out of jail free card” to ministers, and scoffs at the suggestion that bad behaviour can be so easily dismissed as long as you say you didn’t mean it.
As schedules go, it couldn’t be more painful timing for the PM and the uncomfortable narrative isn’t ebbing away.
Johnson has only just finished apologising for the last time he changed the rules to save a friend’s skin. It’s reported that he told backbenchers last night “on a clear road I crashed the car into a ditch”. But 17 days after the first sleaze headlines hit the papers, colleagues may begin to wonder if he has cause to re-test his eyesight just like Dominic Cummings.
Priti Patel, however, is not waiting around to see it. Playbook reports that she is currently on a security tour of Washington, meeting Homeland Security experts to consider intelligence cooperation, international terrorism and online harms.
‘Important’ overseas tours are a tried and tested tactic, as Johnson knows only too well, but one does wonder if she’s not slightly scarred by the last time she hurried home to face judgement and dismissal from the international development office over an unauthorised trip to Israel.
That may not happen this time, but the government’s repeated u-turns (36 so far according to Politico) give little faith that the heirs of Thatcher (The Lady’s not for turning) have a clear guiding star.