Over recent years and months, British politics has grown accustomed to aberrance. But when the Grimond Room doors were closed for the final time on Wednesday afternoon, the lucky witnesses were in no doubt: something remarkable had just happened. A former prime minister — felled only months ago by his party — was asked to give evidence under oath to a committee of MPs, risking prosecution for perjury in the process. Had Johnson not been forced out last July or had he defied the odds and returned in October, we would be facing the prospect of a prime minister ousted by a recall petition and a by-election. To call this Britain’s “Watergate” would be underselling the significance.
Sat over Johnson’s right shoulder in the committee room was Lord Pannick, provided for by Johnson’s £220,000 taxpayer-funded war chest. The lead lawyer could barely contain his astonishment as Johnson huffed and puffed before the smiling assassins, headed by Harriet Harman. His client reddening, breathless and sullen, he saw his formidable attempt to mould Johnson into a serious defendant tested gravely. After a political career defined by buccaneering boosterism, the pre-hearing bootcamp could exact only so many concessions. Caught on tape in a moment of fleeting existentialism, Pannick’s eyes rolled for the nation.
Fidgeting with folders filled with gathering-by-gathering commentaries, Johnson had been given strict guidelines (for want of a better word) to follow. But while his brow furrowed more earnestly than usual, the strategy itself was familiar: create a cloud of confusion, side-step the specifics and drop incautious hints that you’d much rather be somewhere else.
A brief breakdown, if you will:
Procedurally, Johnson argued that the committee was prejudicial because of Harman’s past remarks and that it had exceeded its remit by focussing on “guidance” and not just rules. The committee was “investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury”, Johnson insisted. Such objections were designed to play to his parliamentary supporters, some of whom could be spotted offering moral support on Johnson’s left.
Of course, it was the substantive arguments that the committee were most interested in. On this, Johnson argued lockdown leaving drinks were essential; he insisted that he did not deliberately lie to parliament because of assurances provided by party apparatchiks; and, in any case, Downing Street is much too cribbed and cramped for social distancing. No 10 had perspex screens and one-way systems in some quarters, but officials were fighting a losing battle with 18th-century architecture.
The intricacy of Johnson’s arguments, augmented by juicer asides on bias, did little to convince the committee’s MPs. The questions prepared by the cross-party group were coordinated, deft and ultimately extremely sceptical.
Sir Bernard Jenkin, a veteran Brexit rebel and a onetime defender of Johnson’s conduct, said: “I have to say, if I was accused of lawbreaking and I had to give an undertaking to the House of Commons — of all places — that I had not broken the law, I would want the advice of a lawyer. I would want the advice of somebody really independent and capable”. Et tu, Bernard?
In a political career defined by coasting victories, the former prime minister had come seriously unstuck. But what is more — conventional wisdom suggests Johnson’s narrative arc had culminated with the hearing: an appropriately traumatic conclusion to a career founded on truth twisting.
This assumption looks to have been underscored by Wednesday’s other politically seminal event: the vote on the Windsor Framework. Gushed to the voting lobby midway through the hearing, Johnson joined only 21 other Conservative colleagues in declaring “No” to Rishi Sunak’s Protocol solution. It was far from the roaring rebellion he had intended. The drip-drip of “big beast” announcements on Wednesday morning from Iain Duncan Smith and Liz Truss could not lever the necessary movement to force the PM to rely on opposition votes.
So with his legacy under such profound strain, has the Johnson circus truly come to an end? To answer this properly, we must study the political facts that did not change over the past week.
Firstly, “Boris” and “Brexit” are still inextricably intertwined, meaning the former PM’s reproaches on the topic will inspire column inches long into the future — framework fiasco notwithstanding. His alignment with the ERG faction also appears to be stronger than ever, giving him a core support base in the party. And bolstered with new betrayal narratives on Brexit and the Union, his claim to be the standard bearer of the Conservative right looks increasingly unimpeachable.
Of course, 22 does not sound like a large faction when compared to the 515 who backed Sunak’s Brexit proposals. But within the Conservative party, such a clique has the potential to be an exacting awkward squad, driving key concessions on crunch votes. The 22 figure also does not speak to the number of Johnson allies, such as Conor Burns, who abstained on the vote for one reason or another.
But most significantly, the recent vote on the Windsor Framework underlines that a cornered Boris is following his most obvious political incentive and intensifying his anti-Sunak activism.
Since his abortive comeback tour in October, Johnson’s strategical gambit has been to lie in wait, plot in secret and stir restoration rumours in turn. But the former PM’s Windsor Framework vote shows his phoney war strategy has changed significantly. Johnson knows that with his back against the wall, the time for tempering his attacks has passed.
Crucially, Johnson will find the perfect opportunity to trial this new strategy in the fallout of any privileges committee sanction.
The committee itself has no powers to enact its punishment and it will ultimately fall to MPs to decide whether to accept the findings of the report. The prime minister has already affirmed that this vote will not be whipped, potentially preparing the ground for a cabinet split.
Sunak knows that a number of his top team, such as James Cleverly, Ben Wallace and Chris Heaton-Harris, supported a Johnson comeback in October. This latest loyalty test would then also bleed into other issues — including the matter of a future leadership contest.
Potential Sunak heirs would eye serious political risk in voting against grassroots favourite Johnson, knowing an “aye” vote on the committee report could be used against them down the line. And if faction leaders like Suella Braverman back Boris, swathes of MPs would surely follow.
It is also well within reason that the privileges could recommend that Johnson be suspended from parliament for 10 days, a sanction which would automatically trigger a by-election. In this instance, the Conservative party would be forced to throw resources into Uxbridge — a key battleground seat — marching cabinet members to Johnson’s defence. It would be a deeply problematic, lose-lose scenario for the prime minister.
Indeed, were Johnson to hold Uxbridge, his supporters would say the victory proves he is still an election winner. He would return, political debts paid and apologies feigned, with serious political momentum. He could put this sorry partygate business behind him and apportion more time to his anti-Sunak manoeuvres.
Were he to lose (and it would be Johnson’s first electoral shortcoming since 1997), the former PM would be made-up as a martyr: a true Conservative champion succumb to Sunak’s poor polling. It would open up new dividing lines within the grassroots and even prepare the ground for Johnson to run again in 2024, for Uxbridge or potentially somewhere safer.
One way or another, the political trajectory points to a resumption of the Boris circus even at this apparent nadir in the former PM’s fortunes. Cornered by Brexit and partygate, do not expect Johnson to slink into obscurity. He’s far from done yet.