Civilianise the police

Trying to turn a 19th Century property-protection force, organised like the army, into a 21st Century organisation, modelled on a corporation, is a mug’s game.

A group of Metropolitan Police officers, wearing hi-viz and helmets, viewed from behind
Disband, democratise, civilianise

I’ll keep this short. The Metropolitan Police are in trouble again. A new report calls for reform and accountability. For managament to credibly identify and remove bad apples and institute new, up-to-date norms in the force.

But the Met cannot be reformed in this way. It cannot be conformed to the contemporary meritocratic model of a major organisation, it cannot be governed via the HR department and by change management consultants. You cannot translate a rigid hierarchy of rank (with uniforms and real weapons) into a fluid, open, socially-liberal corporate structure. Sergeants and Inspectors and Commissioners with pips on their shoulders and braid on their hats cannot become modern, first-name managers.

There is no inclusive model for a police force. Likewise there’s no ‘lean-in’ remedy for the exclusion and marginalisation – the misogyny, racism and straightforward numbing brutality – of conventional policing. Station coppers, working class men and women organised into increasingly militarised groups, equipped like Robocop, besieged by a disapproving and disdainful middle-class media and by increasingly alien management orthodoxies imported from Californian corporations, cannot be ‘re-educated’ or transformed to our liking.

The awful, depressing, repetitive, grinding and howling of the machinery as well-meaning leaders try to adapt policing to the practices of a contemporary capitalist society, to the norms of the Professional Managerial Class, to the fantasies of the social and media elite, is harrowing.

And the result, a kind of Frankenstein force that tries pointlessly to blend ‘enlightened’ liberal management practices with the essentially Victorian structures of a police force whose ingrained functions are protecting property, disciplining the urban poor and administering the bureaucracies of control, is a ghastly, mutant instrument that cannot but fail.

What we ought to do is give up trying to squash the police into our ‘woke’ (sorry) social model, stop trying to create a hybrid nurture-discipline machine that somehow mercilessly grinds the faces of crims and respects diversity and wellbeing and mental health week.

We should civilianise the police force. Dismantle the rank-based structure, dissolve the out-of-date geographic organisation and the weak, antagonistic links with local government, dump the chain of command and move ownership and control of the police into our communities, into our town halls and community centres.

To democratise policing, put communities in direct control – not at arms-length via pointless, supine police commissioners but via routine and fine-grained democratic control. Popular sovereignty and community autonomy. Policing policies designed by those policed. Policing the domain of the demos, not of the rulers; management and accountability local and broad-based. We’re not defunding the police (a ridiculous, pretentious idea), we’re democratising the police.

And if this sounds a bit like a people’s militia, or a soviet or a neighbourhood committee. Sure, that’s what it is. It’s democratically accountable, community-owned policing. It’s a ridiculous, utopian demand, of course. But if there’s ever been a moment when something like this could be tried, when an experimental disbandment of the Plod of old might be on the cards, when a readiness of ordinary people and elites to accept something radical might exist, it’s probably now, isn’t it?

How do you like your tradition?

Essentially perfect small town joy or ridiculous and contrived ceremonial fiction?

I was watching this ace video about the shrovetide madness that takes over in several small English towns in February each year and just gurgling with joy at the completeness, the perfect, hermetic correctness of the whole thing. It’s a kind of unarguable tradition. So rooted in the life of these communities. It just is.

The loons in Ashbourne and half a dozen other communities have been crashing around en masse with a huge, leather ball (this year’s Atherstone game was a particularly wild one) for eight hundred years (it might be six hundred, or nine hundred – nobody seems to know) and they see no good reason to stop.

And the obvious contrast that jumped out at me was with the other tradition that we’re all supposed to be engaged with right now – the coronation of a new monarch – a tradition so overblown, so pretentious, so deliberate, that it sucks all the air out of the very idea of tradition, leaving us with the pathetic tradition failure of King Charles and his pen holder, in which a flunkey is berated for not knowing the exact detail of a ritual that was probably brand new.

Part of the Coronation Claims submission form provided by the UK Government for the 2023 coronation of King Charles III - the full text of the form is at the URL linked from the image
Sorry, you’ve missed the deadline

There’s an enormous national effort going into the production of authentic-looking tradition for this coronation. The government has set up a scheme, for instance, that permits people to fill in a form and claim ‘a historic or ceremonial role’ in the event. The Coronation Claims Office “…will ensure we fulfil The King’s wish that the ceremony is rooted in tradition and pageantry but also embraces the future.” Basically, people with plausible stories will get an invitation to put on some kind of costume and attend the coronation. And in this way tradition is made.

We know that most of the traditions of the contemporary monarchy were invented in the late 19th Century – either from whole cloth or based on rituals forgotten since the middle ages – in response to the institution’s last really big crisis of esteem. Some of the traditions are even newer. The big revival of royal tradition began with Victoria’s spectacular diamond jubilee celebration in 1897 and the first true state coronation – with all the parades and public showbiz – was Edward VII’s in 1901. Before that they’d essentially been private events, not really for the hoi poloi. Permitting subjects to cheer from the side of the road was a breakthrough for royal engagement with the populace. It is well known that the new king hates all this.

British life, like that of any modern nation, is a pattern of tradition and novelty; eternal and brand new; authentic and pretend. The rituals of our monarchy, though, are a suffocating simulation that makes a joke of the whole idea of tradition. The institution’s desperate effort to retain legitimacy in a changing world has turned Britain into a tradition factory, a manufacturer of low-grade historical fiction, a fake state.

  • The video is a lovely half-hour doc from a football channel called Copa 90 that’s won loads of prizes.
  • The key text in our recent understanding of British royalty as elaborate invention is David Cannadine’s essay in this excellent book.
  • Everybody knows the royal traditions were invented but the question is, do you care?
  • This article by Simon Heffer from the New Statesman is about the crisis produced by Victoria’s withdrawal from public life that triggered the monarchy’s massive renewed investment in tradition (paywall).
  • The crazy mediaeval football thing is surprisingly widespread and might be the origin of actual football.

1998, the last time New York City had the correct amount of visual chaos

It was the end of history but it was before 9/11, before the crash, a whole decade before the Great Recession

Zuckerberg was still at school. I was in New York. I had a beeper and an answering service, there was a tiny office with a desk and a chair and no one in it. I carried a Powerbook G3, a preposterous Powerpoint deck and yawning self-doubt. TBH I spent more time in Strand Books than selling the proposition and soon enough I closed the New York ‘office’ and retreated to the archipelago.

A dog leans out of the passenger window of a pickup in  heavy traffic at the intersection of 6th Avenue and West 37th Street in Manhattan in 1998
A 1998 photo of International General Merchandise Inc, a grandly named store at 426 Broadway, NY, NY, that sold electronics, sunglasses, bags.
A 1998 photo of Pearl River, a famous Chinese restaurant on Canal Street in lower Manhattan
A Freezer Fresh ice cream truck in Manhattan in July 1998
Sneakers, a sportswear shop on Broadway in Manhattan in 1998
Sbarro, Italian pizza chain, at Times Square, New York, late at night in 1998
A busy scene at an intersection on West Broadway, Manhattan in 1998
Yellow cab close-up, late at night in New York, 1998
Jacob Wiesenfeld, a textile store in Manhattan in 1998
A hotdog restaurant in New York in 1998, the signs outside reference Mayro Giuliani's campaign for more politeness in the city
Shops and signs in New York CIty, 1998
New Moda Custom tailoring, a store in Lower Manhattan in 1998
A Burger King and a yellow cab in midtown Manhattan late at night in 1998
A laundromat in Manhattan, New York, 1998
A $3.00 car wash in midtown Manhattan in 1998
Taxis, trucks and limousines in traffic, viewed from above, New York City, 1998
Plastic Land, a shop in midtown Manhattan in 1998
A neon sign in the window of Galaxy Deli Restaurant in midtown Manhattan in 1998
A blimp passes over lower Manhattan in 1998
Close-up of a yellow cab in New York CIty in 1998
A parking sign and a huge painted billboard in midtown Manhattan in 1998. The Met Life building can be seen at top left.
Signs for AAAAAA Ace Paper Box Corp and AAAAAA Ace Creative Packaging in midtown Manhattan in 1998
Mary's Video Supplies on West 23rd Street, Manhattan in 1998
A sign that shows the State of New York registration number of a car workshop in Manhattan, New York in 1998
A 1998 photograph of Ennio Jeweler, a shop in midtown Manhattan with signs in lovely mid-century commercial typefaces

These photos were all taken with a neat little Canon APS camera. There are more – lots more – on Flickr.

More Klingon than Star Fleet

A Musk spaceship will be a Musk workplace

a group of smiling mostly-male Twitter employees gathered around their new boss Elon Musk at a late-night code review. Musk and others are doing a thumbs-up.
This lot, only in spacesuits

I suppose if you went to Mars on one of Musk’s starships – at least on one of the early missions – you’d probably be an employee of a government agency so the prevailing human resources model would be the faux-nurturing bureaucratic norm of the major Western corporation – mental-health check-ins, work-life balance, standing desks and so on. But I guess, ultimately, someone’s going to wind up on a 100% Musk-owned mission – to Mars or beyond (maybe it’ll be you. It won’t be me).

And what we know about Musk as an employer and as a manager suggests the experience would be a bit more hardcore. Certainly more Darwinian than working for NASA. He’s been very publicly stripping his most recent acquisition, Twitter, of every trace of the cosy superstructure of the advanced late-capitalist corporation. The massages, the vegan food, the unconscious bias training…

We read that he’s turned the place into a kind of bootcamp for eager disciples – what sociologists call a patronage network. A court where a loyal hierarchy competes for preference, like the Soviet Union after Lenin or Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet before they all turned on her. He even brought trusted loyalists from one of his other courts to enforce the tough new culture. Fear and ambition coexist, absolute loyalty is rewarded. And this could be much bigger than Twitter. Some think Musk’s purge might mark the beginning of the end for the liberal-tech utopia of Silicon Valley and its immitators and that hardcore Twitter could become a model for the whole industry. Lay-offs are happening everywhere. The social experiment of cheap-money hyper-meritocratic platform capitalism may be over.

Star Trek Klingon Worf being tormented with pain sticks
An on-board disciplinary

So, once you’re in space on a Musk mission, what’ll it be like? The evidence suggests it’ll be pretty hard yakka – a minimum of 21-months of long shifts, arbitrary policy changes, weird reversions, unexpected side-missions and over-night code rewrites. The crew will dread waking up to a new pronouncement from the boss, non-compliant colleagues will be monstered – on Twitter, natch. In space, loyalty will not be optional, of course: contracts will be unforgiving (a dismissal would likely involve a long spacewalk with no tether, a disciplinary might mean a longer stay on Mars than planned). It’ll definitely be more Klingon than Star Fleet.

Bureacracy in deep space

If you want to understand the state of the art in space-age capitalism you must visit the HR department

A view along a dimly-lit corridor from the film Alien
HR is at the end of the corridor on the right

Everyone knows that it’s in Human Resources that you’ll find the perfect expression of the polished lie of the benign 21st Century workplace. The grim neoliberal orthodoxy of human potential in service of capital lives here: it’s HQ for lean-in corporate orthodoxy. The smiling, dead-eyed culture of compliance-disguised-as-fulfilment that anyone who works for a big firm will recognise. A disciplinary function that thinks it’s a wellbeing project.

There’s a space-faring future HR department at the centre of Olga Ravn’s ‘The Employees’, a 2020 novel subtitled ‘a workplace novel of the 22nd century’. It’s literary science fiction, from hip publisher of translated works Lolli Editions, written during the pandemic (published in November 2020). The bleak, suffocating setting is sketched rather than described – it’s a spaceship, very far from earth, in orbit around a colonised planet that’s been named ‘New Discovery’, and it conjures up the lockdown as vividly as it does all those other spaceships of the collective memory.

The book’s thesis is neat: a spaceship – no matter how advanced its technology, no matter how far into the future or distant from earth it is, no matter how difficult and unsettling its mission – is still a place of work, right? And, when things go wrong, when a discovery on the planet’s surface causes a kind of collective nervous breakdown in the crew and the hierarchy of human and humanoid on board collapses and things start to get nasty, there’ll still need to be some kind of formal investigation, right? Management will need to get involved, send a team, kick off some kind of process?

So the book is a sequence of reports, memos from crew members, gathered by a team sent from earth. And they start kind of bland, empty of tension, cleverly suggesting the complicated economic and social context the crew occupies without describing it (this is not a Kim Stanley Robinson novel). The memos hint at the drama to come and – without spoilers – the tension does build and things do get bad.

The book’s full of subtly-delivered ideas, it has an unexpected emotional charge that builds and there’s real beauty and strangeness in the places we visit, especially in the tantalising glimpse of the surface of New Discovery that we’re offered and in the ‘objects’ encountered there. The language is authentically that of a workplace in crisis and the bloodless, rules-bound culture of human resources and people management described is chilling.

The story is told only by the workers, by the actors in the workplace drama. It’s a one-sided interrogation. We don’t hear the voices of the HR team sent to investigate, the managers who decide how to resolve things (there are evidently no union reps present). The language of the staff interviewed betrays the strangled effort to comply with rules you only vaguely comprehend. And the outcome, the resolution to the problems on-board, is chilling, authentically bureaucratic, brutal – and there’s no right of appeal.

  • I review the books I read on Goodreads – mainly so I don’t forget I’ve read them.

Energy companies use smart technologies to turn their poorest customers into a steady source of income

There are millions of energy prepayment meters in Britain. They’re supposed to liberate customers from financial worry. They do the exact opposite.

Black and white photograph of an array of eight smart gas meters, taken by Miki Yoshihito and published under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence
Smart meters by MIKI Yoshihito

(I updated this post on 2 February 2023 – adding some more recent links)

There are millions of energy prepayment meters in Britain. Over three million households with prepayment meters were cut off at least once last year. 18% of prepayment customers were cut off for two days or more. Meanwhile, the number of people being forced to switch to prepayment because they’ve run up arrears is surging—660,000 households last year (update: we just learnt that one of the biggest suppliers, British Gas, permits bailiffs to break into people’s homes to install prepayment meters). Parts of the media have bought into the energy industry’s story that prepayment meters are in some way benign, that they protect poor customers from getting into trouble. Nick Robinson, BBC journalist, said:

The introduction of prepayment meters was meant to ensure that vulnerable people could not have their gas or electricty cut off. Paying in advance would mean, it was said, they couldn’t get themselves into financial difficulties.

Today, BBC Radio 4, 12 January 2023

It’s a bizarre assertion. Prepayment meters don’t protect customers at all. They protect suppliers and discipline customers.

Questioning an MP on Newsnight, presenter Kirsty Wark asked:

What is a better way to make sure that people don’t try to buck the system?”

Newsnight, BBC Two, 2 February 2023

Once it’s become clear to your electricity company that you’re struggling or you’ve missed a payment (or even that you might miss one), it becomes urgent to get you onto a prepayment meter sharpish, ‘bucking the system’ or not. For a supplier, switching the customer to prepayment ‘de-risks’ the relationship, removing the possibility of default and the need to chase you for payment, appoint debt collectors etc. Moving a customer who’s in financial difficulty to a prepayment meter switches them from potential liability to cast-iron, zero-risk asset.

Free money for shareholders

Also, to state the obvious, a customer with a prepayment meter pays in advance. Without even knowing how many prepayment meters there are in the UK (this number doesn’t seem to be available) or what the average credit held on an account is (likewise), it’s easy to calculate that, with interest rates for cash held over night currently at well over 3%, the energy firms are making tens of millions annually, in bank interest alone, from these deposits. Free money! And from the poorest customers with the least choice!

Mortimer's grocer of Bridge Street, Watferford, Ireland in 1916 - from the collection of the National Library of Ireland
The kind of grocer’s that would have let a salaried customer pay on account

Prepayment is nothing new, of course. Poor people have been required to pay up-front for gas and electricity since the distribution grids were built. Middle class customers with salaries and bank accounts have always paid monthly for goods and services – grocers and tailors and dairies posted a bill and waited politely for a cheque (those ‘no credit’ signs were just for the hoi poloi).

Two tiers

Working class customers – typically hourly-paid or on piece rates – have had, for the whole modern period, to maintain a patchwork of pay-in-advance and pay-as-you go services. Before the NHS, medical treatment was paid for on the spot, insurance and funeral cover was paid weekly on the doorstep. Radios and TVs were rented. Gas and electricity was paid for in advance via coin meters. A whole predatory ecology arose to service the pay-in-advance and pay-on-the-spot economy of working class Britain – tick, tallymen, pawn shops, the whole infrastructure of informal, high-interest lending for the ‘unbanked’. For a hundred years the ‘man from the Pru’ was a feature of working class neighbouorhoods, collecting life insurance premiums door-to-door. This economy emerged to serve those excluded from the pay-on-account economy. And this system, as it does to the present day, extracted a higher rate of return from the least able to pay. Pay-day lenders, sub-prime credit cards, unsecured loans and ruinously expensive overdrafts – a secondary economy that cannot function without precarity and desparation. Prepayment meters are part of this world.

Soaking the working class

More recently, working people have been permitted access to the pay-on-account ecology – via modern devices like Direct Debit and ‘continuous payment authorities‘, conveniences that are also sold as an improvement to service for customers but were actually designed to give suppliers some certainty about accepting payments from the great unwashed (see also ‘pay-as-you-go’ mobiles). Poorer customers are characterised as ‘higher-risk’ but the prepayment and pay-as-you go devices they’re required to use turn them into zero-risk sources of annuity income. Rates for prepayment are also typically higher and less flexible than for pay-on-account or Direct Debit bills. Suppliers say this has to be so because operating the prepayment infrastructure adds cost but as prepayment and smart meters converge this difference will disappear.

And the meters themselves lift the crude business of taking the money up-front to a new level. They’re exploitation machines, disciplinary surveillance robots installed directly in customers’ homes. Each meter embeds a contractual relationship and a set of terms and coditions and, once all meters are ‘smart’, switching a customer from the pay-on-account elite to the prepayment underclass is trivially easy (and could even be automatic – missed a payment? Welcome to the prepayment underclass!).

And once you’re in prepayment mode, the machine acquires the discretion to enforce the contract by cutting supply. Spent your money on food? Couldn’t get down the shop? You’re out of luck. The meter has decided. And if you built up arrears while paying monthly, your meter will be set up to take it all back from you, week by week, and while you’re repaying what you owe you won’t be able to switch to another supplier – the annual ritual of switching suppliers enjoyed by the savvy householder is not available to you. The liberty of the informed consumer in a free market is denied to you. You are stuck (and, incidentally, you are almost certainly on the supplier’s highest available rate with the fewest options).

Living on a prepayment cliff edge

The experience of living with a prepayment meter is necessarily stressful. Even if you’ve got a steady income and can afford the crazy prices, you still have to worry about keeping the meter topped up and about the cliff-edge of being cut off if you forget or run short. For people who are struggling (many millions of UK households right now, of course) the additional stress of controlling expenditure and topping up before the supply stops is punishing and time-consuming – and makes everything else harder. Worse yet, when a prepayment meter goes wrong or a key fails, the meter – you won’t be suprised to learn – will always fail in the ‘off’ state, so if your top-up doesn’t work there’s a reasonable chance you’ll be cut off and waiting over night in the cold for an engineer or a call-back. Failing in the ‘on’ state would obviously risk supplying a low-value customer with some free energy and must thus be avoided at all cost.

Adding the stress of prepayment to the anxiety of poverty and precarity is, of course, a feature not a bug. Families with no slack, no buffer against destitution, have to find the bus fare to get to a distant news agent before it closes or someone to look after the kids while they scrabble for funds. And if you can find a fiver to top up you’ll need to do the same again tomorrow – and lie awake worrying about it tonight. Prepayment was designed this way. It’s deliberate, debilitating, immiserating. The routine humiliation of the poor is a centuries-old pattern. It’s become unchallenged common sense that life should be harder for the poor. Smart technologies and prepayment meters make it easier than ever to achieve this.

Reverse redistribution

During the pandemic, innovators and opportunists improvised bold new ways to move money from the state into private hands – it was like the seizure of assets in a socialist state – only backwards.

Black and white photo of James Beck waring a wide-brimmed hat and a nice overcoat in the role of Private Walker the spiv in Dad's Army
A comedy profiteer

We know that in emergencies governments turn to compulsion to get things done. In wartime manufacturing capacity will be requisitioned, farmers told what to grow, broadcasters switched to propaganda. We expect this – and we’re ready to accept sometimes drastic variations in the rules to speed things up, to save lives, (or to crush counter-revolution).

In the pandemic, governments everywhere activated laws – some of which had been passed years before for this purpose – obliging the private sector to support the state’s response to the outbreak. In the USA, the Defense Production Act was invoked, directing businesses to switch capacity to ventilators and PPE equipment – essentially a wartime response to the crisis, not unlike the epic programme that provided thousands of warplanes and tanks to the allies in WW2. This Truman-era law has been used by several Presidents since and it was Donald Trump who did so as the pandemic took hold in 2020, even as he was busy endorsing bleach and necking hydroxychloroquine (Biden has subsequently used the Act to push vaccine production and energy independence).

Being a socialist state obviously gave you no magic advantage in the plague years but in Cuba the country’s highly effective natural disaster response system quickly switched to managing the pandemic and, as a result, the country has done better than most – including, obviously, its near neighbour across the Straits of Florida – in limiting deaths and economic damage. The response of the country’s excellent medical system, and in particular its DIY vaccine programme, was so successful that American scientists want access to it. Expect a lot of new Fidelist national resilience plans.

In Britain it was different. To be clear, the looting of the British Covid PPE programme probably wasn’t unique. No crisis, war or catastrophe ever goes unexploited anywhere in the world. Profiteering is universal. But in Britain it seems to have been a particularly entrepreneurial project and deeply integrated with the state. When the book is written it’ll be like something from Bulgakov or Vonnegut—a surreal and quite dark montage of titled spivs, lingerie millionaires, legislators on the make, dodgy pub landlords, nervous-looking civil servants…

This baroque clusterfuck of chancers and pin-striped conmen and their credulous Parliamentary enablers worked like a kind of decadent, mirror-Communism. Collectivism run in reverse. Like when revolutionary governments nationalise land and manufacturing without compensation or when Third World nations seize copper mines and oil wells. Only it was all the other way around.

An effective machine was quickly built, by a coalition that’s familiar to us now from twelve years of government. This is the coalition that brings together the more entrepreneurial Tory Parliamentarians – the thrusting, post-Cameron crowd, not the old gits with dinner on their ties – and the younger generation of business opportunists they socialise with. Not the titled Plc crowd of the 20th Century but the risk-taking, leveraged, post-crash types. Millennial gangsters – the Britannia Unchained generation.

And they built an ad-hoc but highly efficient money funnel – in a matter of days. It was a slick, fast-track mechanism, Paypal for shysters. The Government called it the ‘exceptional procurement exercise’ (this long official apologia for the scheme is quite a read – and includes a list of the firms involved and who proposed them). It came with full state authority and an explicit exemption from examination and it moved cash from the state into the bank accounts and off-shore trusts of business owners and their families, with no questions asked.

The stated logic of the operation was that the only way to move fast enough, to meet the unprecedented needs of the NHS while every other national health system was competing for goods in the same market, was to harness the energy and entrepreneurialism of the connected class, the old boys and old girls, the highly-tuned supply chain of dinner parties and text messages and Parliamentary drinks receptions (and all those incandescent emails, of course).

And the whole regime was very very 21st Century. Agile, ‘open source’, low-friction – a kind of hyper-modern reverse expropriation. Just-in-time enrichment for connected chancers. Contracts were awarded fast, before businesses existed to fulfil them quite often. In all, 430 contracts were awarded via the ‘high priority mailbox’. Prices were ruinous, margins enormous (something here of the $400 hammer). We’ve learnt that a simple forwarded email could trigger a transfer of hundreds of millions of pounds. Epic paydays for wise-guys from every corner of capitalism. The same firms, of course, often became eligible for Covid furlough payments and claimed again – a spectacular double payday.

And, let’s face it, this is before you even get to the much bigger transfer of wealth – via the vast Bank of England debt-purchase scheme and the government’s direct support for business – to asset owners. These multi-million pound PPE paydays are going to look really silly next to the really big payday.

Defending the indefensible

This is a guest post from the nice people at Radlett Wire, a local blog that, having spent ten years providing, let’s face it, mostly quite boring information about the small Hertfordshire town in its name, is now doing something a bit more political and keeping an eye on the public life and shifting fortunes of local MP (and Sunak sidekick) Oliver Dowden. This post caught our eye because it’s about the politics of clinging to office.

Media training for Ministers of the Crown must now include excusing the indiscretions of people you probably think are beneath contempt

Sir Gavin Williamson MP behind a big desk with a union flag behind him
Boris Johnson literally knighted this man

In the past, when ministers broke the rules, made egregious errors or just royally embarrassed themselves, the routine was fairly simple. You resigned sharpish and – depending on the severity of your offence – were cast into outer darkness (the House of Lords), left politics all together or, in the fullness of time were rehabilitated and reinserted to the cabinet as if nothing had happened (sometimes more than once).

More recently, in the period, roughly speaking, between the beginning of the coalition government in 2010 and the chaos of Brexit, the routine changed. Something about the rise of populism, the bracing free-for-all of the new politics, means the norms have been rewritten. Now, when disgraced, a politician can be expected to cling to power – sometimes for months on end, sometimes indefinitely – with the petulance of a haughty toddler. The honourable resignation, the dignified retreat from public life – these are now thought to be signs of political weakness, hopelessly outdated remnants of a prissier political era. Only wimps resign.

For the muscular populists of the post-political era, the polite traditions of 20th Century politics are not just an inconvenience, they’re part of the problem. Decorum, sobriety, propriety – all are no longer sources of legitimacy but evidence of establishment paralysis. Trashing political norms is not incidental to the project – it’s fundamental. And it’s a self-reproducing behaviour. Once a majority of pols are responding to crises in this way it becomes essentially impossible to do so in the old way. When politics shifts and everyone around you is shameless, resigning when found out becomes essentially unpolitical, unstrategic. You’d look like a mug so you hang on until the storm passes (or you’re literally forced onto a plane home to be publicly fired).

So a necessary part of the new routine is the ritual interrogation of the miscreant’s colleagues. It’s an accepted part of the job. Whoever shows up in the studio to answer questions about that day’s big story will, as a matter of routine, be asked to justify the errant minister’s continued presence in the cabinet. There’s a fairly static repertoire of responses – “it would be wrong to pre-judge the official inquiry”, “the minister has apologised and is now 100% focused on delivery of the government’s ambitious programme”, “the minister has the full support of the Prime Minister.”

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's cabinet, seated around the cabinet table in Number 10 in October 2022

Given the size of a modern cabinet – (31 ministers attend Rishi Sunak’s cabinet) – there’s always at least one minister in disgrace. In recent times it’s regularly been two or three and, in the remarkable period that came to a close in August, it was often the Prime Minister himself. So the likelihood you’ll be grilled about a colleague’s indiscretions is high. You need to be across the story. In the official car on the way to the studio the minister is reading papers about their own brief, about wider policy and about the antisocial behaviour of a fellow minister. It’s all in a day’s work.

Oliver Dowden is evidently thrilled to be asked about Gavin Williamson

So when our MP Oliver Dowden showed up in Laura Kuenssberg’s studio on Sunday he had to have the Gavin Williamson story down pat. The timing of his appointment to his current role, the status of the inquiry launched when Wendy Morton made her complaint, whether or not the Prime Minister had seen the screenshots of Williamson’s latest outburst. All committed to memory – the man’s a pro. Williamson, who was knighted by Boris Johnson after an earlier sequence of screw-ups (remember the lockdown exam chaos, the row with Marcus Rashford and the Department of Defence leak?), at least nominally reports to Dowden, so that must make it all a bit more real. In the interview Dowden made use of a fairly flimsy ‘heat of the moment’ defence and made the slightly ungracious implication that nobody liked Wendy Morton anyway (“it was no secret that Gavin Williamson, and others indeed, didn’t enjoy a good relationship with the Chief Whip at the time…”).

Williamson’s texts to the Chief Whip, of course, are probably a blessed relief for the government, keeping the Home Secretary’s more consequential string of cock-ups off the front page for a day or two. The clock is ticking.