It's not the sleaze that will do for Boris. Christopher Furlong/Getty

November 8, 2021   4 mins

Pride, Greed, Wrath, Envy, Lust, Gluttony, Sloth. How do the Seven Deadly Sins vote? Greed, lust and gluttony are Tories, surely. Collectively: sleaze. Envy is a lefty — the “politics of envy” and all that. Perhaps wrath is too. After all, wrath does love a shouty demo (although it usually disguises itself as a virtue called ‘righteous anger’). Pride — widely seen by theologians as the top sin — is evenly distributed amongst all politicians. And sloth is generally not a political sin — though this is the mood that grips me when I listen to Liberal Democrats so I’m going to let them have that one.

Tory MPs generally fall from grace in a different kind of way to their Left-wing colleagues. For Tories, it tends to be all about willies and wallets. Boris and his wallpaper. Hancock with his assistant over the photocopier. Go back a bit, and there’s Neil Hamilton trousering back handers from Mohamed Fayed, and David Mellor sucking the toes of his mistress dolled up in full Chelsea kit. And we enjoy it when they get their comeuppance, especially when it is sex related. Owen Paterson’s grubby little misdemeanours weren’t of the bedroom variety, but still get filed under sleaze.

The trouble for Labour is that we don’t fear these people, we snigger at them. Posh people doing sleaze is generally priced in when we vote Tory. We find it hilarious when the local MP is caught trussed up in the back of a respectable mock Tudor semi, slavered in goose fat wearing nothing but a gas mask. But we are not all that surprised. They went to public school, after all.

And while sins of the wallet are far less amusing, even these can be made to feel more like playing the system as opposed to hand-in-the-till theft. Likewise, covering up for your mates can be humanised as a misguided expression of personal friendship. “A tiny part of me even admires their loyalty to their friend and political ally,” admitted Chris Bryant, Labour MP and chair of the cross party Standards Committee.

We’d all like our friends to go the extra mile for us, even if that means cutting corners, cheating, whatever. After all, why did the Prime Minister not suffer any noticeable electoral consequence for conspiring with his mate Darius Guppy to beat up a reporter. It was disgraceful behaviour, yet somehow Boris keeps on getting away with it because he manages to turn his considerable moral shortcomings into a kind of human-all-too-human failing of the kind we are invited to identify with.

Interestingly, Dante — who did most to popularise the Catholic idea of the seven deadly sins — thought that lust, gluttony and greed, my Tory vices, were all disordered versions of the love of intrinsically good things: love, food, material well-being. Human imperfectability — what we might call original sin — has been a defining feature of historic conservatism. And it is a generally kinder, more forgiving, more human version of the world than the belief that human beings can be bashed into the perfect form. This could be a summary of Burke on the French Revolution.

Of course, it is infuriating. But this is why Tory sleaze presents a kind of trap for Labour.

The naughtier Boris gets, the more Keir Starmer — with whom we are not on first name terms — is transformed into some sort of lawyer/teacher authority figure whom we would secretly like to thumb our noses at. “It’s not naughtiness, it’s corruption!” Mr Starmer may scream inside with understandable frustration. Why do voters repeatedly fall for this juvenile bullshit? But they still do.

“How many more times does it need to happen? How much more proof do we need that the country is run by a man with contempt for the rule of law, who believes that he and his friends are beyond its reach?” So Jonathan Freedland begins his column in the Guardian, steam coming out of his ears. Can’t you see, can’t you see? Yet Boris Johnson remains ahead in the polls. And many voters in Owen Paterson’s constituency seem relatively unperturbed by last week’s shenanigans.

But the Prime Minister’s well-practised capacity to slip free from the weight of his own moral dodginess can only last so long on voters. Two lines of Labour criticism do cut through with the public. The first is: they think they are better than you. One rule for them, for the Old Etonians and their mates, and another for the little people. In other words, they think you are unimportant.

Yet even here, there is danger for Labour. After all, the intensification of a class-based critique of this government’s behaviour can easily be turned on its head to remind voters of the natural affinity between Labour and envy. And envy is a particularly wizened up mean-spirited vice in the way lust and gluttony are not. The hard left are Boris Johnson’s greatest electoral asset. With one magic word – Corbyn – all is forgiven.

But the most effective line is surely this: you don’t know what you’re doing. This is what Spurs fans sang at their manager the other week, just before he got the sack. And this is what Labour should be singing more. To paraphrase a French wit: its worse than a sin, it’s a mistake. Which is exactly the word John Major used when interviewed by the BBC. Well, he could hardly have called him out on sleaze, what with him and Edwina.

But Major was right. For all the cries of moral outrage, it’s not the sleaze that will do for him, but his political cack-handedness. Last week he frogmarched his own reluctant backbenchers into supporting an attack on the standards system that had judged Owen Paterson guilty, only to immediately reverse his position, leaving many on his own side fuming and embarrassed.

Today, there is an emergency debate in the Commons. I suspect this may well help the Prime Minister, as tribal loyalties kick in when he is attacked by the Opposition. But as Johnson faces Starmer across the dispatch box, the real danger is not in front of him, but behind him. Tories might store it up and do it silently — but they too do wrath. And as a scholar of Roman history, the Prime Minister knows full well what a thwarted mishandled Senate is capable of. Boris beware, beware the ides of March.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.