Do we really need more of Johnson? After last week’s performance does anybody still believe him?
“Boris really has adopted a disgracefully cavalier attitude to his classical studies. [He] sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility (and surprised at the same time that he was not appointed Captain of the school for the next half). I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation that binds everyone else.”
Martin Hammond, BJ’s classics master in 1982
“I do not believe that you can conceivable find me guilty… If this committee were to find me in contempt.. I think that would be unfair and that would be wrong”
Boris Johnson, 22 March 2023.
“There is only one good service Boris Johnson can render his party and his country. He shouldn’t wait for the verdict of Harriet Harman. He shouldn’t wait for the verdict of the House. He shouldn’t wait for the verdict of the people of Uxbridge. He should just go.“
Dan Hodges, Mail on Sunday (!), 26 March
“The cult of Boris Johnson – and his Brexit dream – are imploding”
Camilla Tominey, Telegraph (!), 23 March
“I don’t think you can write off Boris Johnson until he is buried at a crossroads with a stake driven through his heart”.
Max Hastings, his former boss at the Telegraph, 22 March
It would be wonderful if we no longer had to utter the name of Boris Johnson. Indeed, what a different country, what a different world, it would be if his name had never been heard in public. Even he himself, in his heart of hearts, if he has one, must recognise this.
And with Ukraine, Rwanda, the REUL Bill and the Windsor Framework going on, is the focus on this contemptible two dimensional individual not only unjustified but a major distraction?
Perhaps true, but let us suspend that thought for a second. So much has been said and written about Johnson’s self-inflicted parliamentary humiliation on Wednesday that it is difficult to know what to say without repeating the obvious. However, I will try.
Arrogance and entitlement
Johnson’s appearance before the Parliamentary Standards and Privileges Committee almost coincided with the release of the Casey report. What an object lesson about life in today’s UK. Baroness Casey identified a culture of arrogance and entitlement within the Metropolitan Police, whereby those individuals who acted outside the rules had a well founded expectation that their colleagues, whether complicit or not, would cover up for them. Hence, whatever you might say about a few bad apples, it is no exaggeration to talk about a culture of wrongdoing. How ironic that a comparable picture of collusion has emerged of the Downing St. estate.
The three hours of questioning made captivating television. Indeed it may well have been the first experience for many of its viewers of the parliamentary committee system, one in which there is an opportunity for detailed and forensic questioning of witnesses who have an effect no choice but to answer. It can hardly have been comfortable for Johnson, but there is one simple response for those who are tempted to feel sympathy, namely that it was in his power to prevent the need for such an interrogation, all he had to do was be open and honest at an earlier stage. Yet that is something which perhaps for him would have been a new experience.
Without going into great detail of the cut and thrust of the session, it was quite striking that some of the most cogent and damaging questions came from the Tories on the committee, particularly arch brexiteer Sir Bernard Jenkin, and also Sir Charles Walker. While they were totally professional throughout, one might well suspect that they were spurred on by irritation with Johnson over what he had done to bring their party into disrepute.
Ignorance is no defence before the law
As expected, Johnson’s testimony was incoherent, repetitive and rambling. His main defence appeared to be that he was so incredibly stupid that he failed to understand the guidelines which he was daily explaining on television to the British public. He asked us to believe that he needed to have the rules explained to him, but for this he approached his own spads rather than experienced civil servants. We now know that the latter, from cabinet secretary Sir Simon Case down, denied having given him any reassuring advice. Johnson never once passed up an opportunity to blame others, the more junior the better, for his own lapses of judgement and probity, and for not warning him that the law was being broken.
Repeatedly during the process Johnson acted as if he failed to understand even simple questions, and he displayed not only the expected bluster but repeated angry outbursts. He had been provided with expert legal advice, for which the taxpayer has contributed £200,000 and counting (we’re still wondering why). Yet this money looks to have been wasted. Far from acting on legal advice, he spoke repeatedly in a way that made Lord Pannick, who was sitting next to him, cringe. This culminated in the extremely unwise implication that, in effect, he would accept the verdict only if it was favourable. This is so reminiscent of Trump saying in the presidential debates that he would reject the election result if it went against him, as indeed he subsequently did.
As has been very wisely said, had Johnson been sitting in Graham Norton’s Big Red Chair, he would have been flipped very early on in the session. Yet the chair remained resolutely unflipped to the end.
The rebellion went off at half cock
In the midst of all this, as planned, there was a division bell, and Johnson left the room to vote against his own party on the Windsor framework (or at least the Stormont break, the one part on which parliament was due to have a say). In doing this he was in the company of only 21 other Tories, Together with 7 DUP members. The feared Johnson-inspired mass rebellion never materialised, and informed opinion is that Sunak emerged strengthened. It seems never to have occurred to Johnson that what he was trying to block was the best available pragmatic solution to the mess which he had caused in the first place with his Northern Ireland protocol. He was offering no better alternative. There really is no excuse. Perhaps Johnson’s antagonism to Sunak’s deal is based on knowing that he would never have been capable of negotiating a such a deal himself. To do so would have required a principled approach on the British side and trust on the EU side, something which the EU have made clear would not have been forthcoming.
Enemies old and new
The net result of the day for Johnson was that he had made many new enemies. Firstly the junior colleagues he had thrown under the bus in a vain attempt to save his own reputation; secondly the committee members whose irritation at his antics showed through; thirdly Sunak, whom he had tried unsuccessfully to upend, and upon whom he will be reliant in weeks to come for at least tacit support; and last but not least the many families watching who had suffered loss and privation through observing the rules which Johnson and his cronies had treated so lightly.
Was he telling the truth? The committee seemed not to think so. Nor do the British public, with the latest Omnisys poll showing that even among Conservative voters only a minority (28%) believed him. There was a dramatic moment in last week’s BBC Question Time, where Fiona Bruce asked the audience to raise a hand if they believed Johnson, and not a single hand went up. This from an audience in a Tory-voting part of the country. It might be plausible to imagine that there were some in the audience who believed him, but feared that they would be asked to explain themselves if they raised a hand. Nonetheless, what this means is that the public view of Johnson has moved on so far that such people knew they would stand out. And Steve Baker, for once, may well be right when he says Johnson ‘risks looking like a pound shop Farage’. The Tory papers, the Mail and Telegraph, both take the line that Johnson is yesterday’s man.
The lesson for Tory MPs is surely that they cannot expect a resurgent Johnson to save them from at least a spell in opposition. or to lead his party back to power in the election after next. On the contrary, he is damaged goods and becoming more so.
But opinion is still divided. Johnson apologists such as Nadine Dorries and, hilariously, Claire Bullivant pretend to swallow his lies to the letter. In doing so they are simply making it difficult to take anything they say seriously. And when they talk about the committee as a ‘kangaroo court’, are they forgetting that it Is an integral part of parliamentary procedure, established with the unanimous support of MPs, and has a Tory majority (4 out of 7)? It is impossible to challenge its legitimacy without challenging that of our whole democratic system.
Lecture tour or jail?
So where to from here? Famously, if the committee decides on a suspension longer than 10 days, and assuming this is ratified by the Commons, then the likeliest outcome is a recall petition and by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, leaving Johnson the ex-MP to return full time to journalism and his lecture tours. However, there is another complication. Unusually Johnson was asked to swear an oath, perhaps because among witnesses he has a unique reputation for slipperiness, so if it becomes clear later that he was lying to the committee, then he is guilty not only of contempt of parliament but also of perjury, a criminal offence. Sarah Vine famously and incongruously compared Johnson to a cat, but perhaps he is getting to the point where he has used up all nine of his lives?
The buck stops here
Johnson’s failure to take responsibility, and his instinct for blaming everyone but himself, is just the most recent manifestation of the lifelong sense of entitlement of which his classics master wrote. He could perhaps have learned something from Harry S Truman, the American president, whose desk always bore a sign “the buck stops here”. Can we look forward to a time when British politicians say the same, and act as if they mean it? We can only live in hope.
The author is chair of Oxford for Europe, and this article in based on a blog on the website oxfordforeurope.org. The views expressed are personal