Misdirection is an underrated weapon in parliament: the best way of dealing with an embarrassing situation is to create an even greater embarrassment.
So who better to spare the government’s blushes over whether Michael Gove breached privy council rules by allegedly leaking private conversations with the queen to the Sun than Chris “Failing” Grayling, a man whose own abject performance at the dispatch box was almost bound to eclipse the alleged indiscretions of the justice secretary? As if on cue, Grayling fell on his sword and Gove was off the hook.
The surreal is becoming standard fare in Westminster these days. It is now the Labour benches who have become the custodians of the establishment status quo and Grayling, lord president of the privy council, who is forced to act as the defence for the “Free the Gove One” campaign. Tom Watson’s urgent question was carefully worded to exclude any reference to the Queen’s political affiliations as such matters are off limits to the Commons, but its sense was unmistakable: the justice secretary had abused his position of trust as privy councillor to boost the Brexit campaign and ought to be sacked.
On another day, in another universe, there’s nothing David Cameron would like to do more than get rid of Gove. But given the choice of maintaining the veneer of unity in the Tory party or getting rid of a nuisance, the gloss wins every time. Hence the urgent call for “Failing” Grayling. “I’ve read that Nick Clegg has said that no conversations about Europe with the Queen ever took place,” he announced. “If no conversations took place, there is nothing to investigate. Therefore, I propose to do absolutely nothing about anything.” Doing absolutely nothing is invariably his default position when challenged over anything.
Grayling sat down looking unaccountably pleased with himself, as if he had just said something of stunning brilliance, and several Brexit campaigners, such as John Redwood, Liam Fox and Peter Bone were quick to praise him for his intelligence and judgment. Character references from accomplices are seldom the most reliable of evidence and the Labour benches once more leapt to the defence of the Queen’s honour.
When was the last time Grayling had ever taken a blind piece of notice of anything Clegg had said? If no conversation had ever taken place, why did Gove go out of his way to suggest that it had? These kind of nuances were well above Grayling’s pay grade so he switched to auto-gibberish. “The conversation did not take place so the conversations that did not take place at privy council meetings cannot be investigated,” he said. This was an ongoing conversation that the leader of the house will wish had never happened when he has time to reflect on it.
Labour continued to probe. To no avail. Why couldn’t Gove just come to the house and set the record straight about what was and wasn’t said? “The justice secretary can’t come to the house to report on conversations that he had because the conversations that he thought he had had hadn’t in fact taken place,” Grayling declared triumphantly.
Sensing that parliament had temporarily become the theatre of the absurd, Tory Phillip Hollobone upped the ante by suggesting that the remain campaign had been taken over by the international Bilderberg Group. It used to be the far left who traded in conspiracy theories. Grayling battled on. The Queen had never had a conversation with anyone; as anyone who had ever met her knew full well she communicated entirely by telepathy.
Over in Buckingham Palace, the Queen was shouting: “Why are so many of my privy councillors so dim? No wonder I’m so confused.” But no one was listening this time. “Failing” Grayling had fallen on his sword; Gove was off the hook.
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