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Nick Spencer: Treachery may be nasty but necessary

05 August 2022

Rishi Sunak’s treatment of Boris Johnson showed why, argues Nick Spencer


Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak walk out of Downing Street last September

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak walk out of Downing Street last September

TREACHERY is one of those words that think for us. It comes marinaded in moral indignation. There are no good traitors.

As it happens, there has been some perceptive philosophical reflection on the morality of, and justification for, deception, such as Cécile Fabre’s recent book Spying Through a Glass Darkly (OUP). But, overall, it seems an unredeemable concept, as the ever acute The Simpsons recognised. “My superiors were pleased with your work,” a CIA agent tells Homer after he has been recruited to spy for them. “You have a flair for treachery.”

Rishi Sunak also has a flair for treachery — at least, according to the Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries. She attracted much comment and condemnation for a recent tweet that showed the former Chancellor plunging a knife into Caesar Johnson’s back — a striking image, even ignoring the knife attacks on the MPs David Amess and Jo Cox.

It is reasonably easy to see why Ms Dorries herself should be so eager to attack Mr Sunak for attacking Boris Johnson, without whom she may never have had a position in government. But why the rest of the Conservative Party should feel similarly aggrieved is less clear.

Mr Sunak is alleged to be trailing in the leadership race in part because he catalysed it. When asked about this on Radio 4’s Today programme this week, he was not keen to claim any credit, hiding behind the fact that 60 others had done the same. No mention in dispatches for charging over the top here.

But perhaps there should be? Only the most blinkered of Tory supporters, their loyalty focused squarely on Mr Johnson rather than his government, let alone his party or country, could have missed how the weeping sore of scandals was harming the wider cause. Surely Mr Sunak’s treachery was serving the wider good, even if only the party’s wider good.

Moral responsibility is sometimes understood as a series of concentric circles, the outer ones more elevated than the inner. No one is going to criticise you for putting your child’s welfare over a stranger’s, but they will condemn you for putting yourself above your colleagues, your colleagues above your party, or your party over your country.

This is a challenge largely because our circles of loyalty usually go the other way, closer attachments taking precedence over further; but we deal with the resulting tension by pretending that all these demands naturally line up. It is precisely by supporting my party, we say, that I pursue my country’s good, and by supporting my leader that I pursue my party’s. And sometimes it is.

But not always. Ethical dissonance runs deep, and not all goods are aligned. Indeed, they are never all aligned. Those who think that there is simply a well-hidden win-win in every moral quandary are just kidding themselves.

In short, if we are serious about serving the greater goods, we may have to forfeit or forsake more immediate, local goods. Sometimes, for the sake of the party, the leader should go.

I don’t want to spray-paint a halo on Mr Sunak. Political assassins are often simply self-serving egotists garbed in the greater good. But not always, and not necessarily. Sometimes, what looks like plain treachery at a local level, or in the short term, might be necessary. Sometimes, it might even be good.

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos and hosts the podcast Reading our Times.

Paul Vallely is away.

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