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20 March 2023

Tory MPs have a golden opportunity to end Boris Johnson’s political career

The charlatan who has so debased British politics and public life has run out of excuses.

By Martin Fletcher

If there’s one thing that Boris Johnson is really, really good at, it is lying.

He’s done it all his life. He lied to readers of the Times and was sacked for it. He lied to readers of the Daily Telegraph with his fabricated stories about the EU’s alleged iniquities. He lied to Conrad Black when he promised not to run for parliament while editing the Spectator. He lied to Michael Howard, then Conservative Party leader, when he denied having an affair with Petronella Wyatt. He lied to his first two wives about his adultery. He lied to the late Queen about proroguing parliament. He lied to the nation about the alleged benefits of Brexit, about his “oven-ready” withdrawal deal, and about not creating a border in the Irish Sea.

There are websites and an entire book chronicling his lies. The UK Statistics Authority has upbraided him for disseminating falsehoods. “I would not take Boris’s word about whether it is Monday or Tuesday,” Max Hastings, his former Telegraph editor, once said. “He’s probably the best liar we’ve ever had as prime minister. He knows a hundred different ways to lie,” Rory Stewart, the former Conservative minister, said.

[See also: Boris Johnson’s political future rests on this week’s partygate hearing]

Now the “greased piglet” is back on centre stage, fighting for his political life as he seeks to defend himself against the charge that he lied to – sorry, “misled” – parliament by repeatedly telling it, as the partygate scandal broke, that he and his Downing Street aides breached none of the draconian lockdown rules that they had imposed on the country during the Covid pandemic.

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Johnson will have to be at his mendacious best to wriggle out of this one, even with the taxpayer-funded help of his top-notch lawyer, David Pannick. In a 50-page defence dossier released today (20 March) and in his televised appearance before the privileges committee on Wednesday he will squeal and squirm, grunt and snort, bluster and bloviate, but the odds – and the facts – are surely stacked against him.

He and 82 aides have already been fined by the police for holding leaving dos, birthday parties, Friday night drinks and a Christmas quiz even as they ordered the rest of the country to stay at home and avoid weddings and funerals, births and deaths. Johnson personally attended at least eight of those events. There are photographs of him chatting at them, addressing them, holding glasses of fizz aloft and making toasts. At one party, according to a witness, he declared that it was “probably the most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK right now”.

In contemporaneous WhatsApp messages obtained by the committee Johnson’s aides candidly admitted that they did not know how they could defend him. “I’m struggling to come up with a way this one is in the rules,” says one. “Haven’t heard any explanation of how it’s in the rules,” says another.

And if Johnson had nothing to hide, why did he fail swiftly to correct the parliamentary record, as required, when it became clear that the rules had indeed been broken? Why did his aides submit documents to the committee that were, it protested, “so heavily redacted as to render them devoid of any evidential value”? Only after Rishi Sunak took office did it receive unredacted material.

Stripped to its essentials, Johnson’s defence is that he thought the gatherings enjoyed “workplace exemptions”, meaning he either had not read or did not understand the lockdown rules he had imposed on the country and extolled in numerous press conferences. 

[See also: Rishi Sunak is moving at speed – but can he outpace the spectre of Boris Johnson?]

The privileges committee is evidently not buying that: in its interim report on 3 March it stated, damningly, that it “would have been obvious” to Johnson that the parties breached the rules. I suspect the country is not buying it either. Indeed, it’s about as credible as Donald Trump saying he did not incite the storming of the US Congress, or Vladimir Putin denying he’s a war criminal. The proverbial dog in the street knows Johnson is guilty, with 78 per cent of respondents telling YouGov that they believed he had deliberately misled parliament.

The former prime minister’s second line of defence is, disgracefully, to discredit the committee. For weeks now, in true Trumpian style, his allies have been denouncing it as a “kangaroo court”, a “lynch mob”, a “witch hunt” and a “political show trial with an outrageous level of bias” – claims echoed and amplified by his shameless cronies at the Daily Mail, Telegraph, Sun and Express

They argue that the Labour MP Harriet Harman is unfit to chair the committee because she tweeted that Johnson had “knowingly lied” about partygate. They assert that its interim report was based on an investigation by Sue Gray, the senior civil servant who has since been appointed Keir Starmer’s chief of staff, and was therefore tainted.

That is more self-serving nonsense. Harman was appointed by the entire House of Commons. The seven-strong committee has a 4-3 Tory majority. The committee’s interim report was based on evidence that it had acquired itself, not on Gray’s findings. In any case, Johnson himself appointed Gray to conduct the original partygate investigation because of her reputation for honesty and integrity, and her report was such a model of impartiality that he was able to claim that it “exonerated” him.

In one sense only is Johnson right. The committee members are indeed politicians, not judges. As such they are subject to political pressures. That is why Johnson’s supporters are putting such intense pressure on the four Conservatives, urging them to “stand up for justice” and quit the “Labour-led investigation”. Unfortunately for Johnson, political considerations work both ways.

[See also: Rishi Sunak’s Windsor deal has left Boris Johnson high and dry]

If the committee recommends that Johnson be suspended for more than ten working days, and if the House upholds that recommendation, a mere 10 per cent of registered voters in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency could trigger a by-election. They surely would, and he would probably lose.

Will the Tory members of the privileges committee agree he should be suspended? Would the 355 Conservative MPs uphold that recommendation in the free vote that Sunak has promised them? Many right-wingers and Brexiteers would doubtless back him out of misplaced loyalty, or under pressure from their constituency associations and the right-wing tabloid press, but would enough do so to save him?

It would be a hell of a choice. For sensible Tory MPs, the honest and decent ones, the vote would give them cover to remove the single biggest threat to Sunak as he battles to save their party from electoral catastrophe. George Osborne, the former chancellor, recently said of Johnson: “He wants to bring down Rishi Sunak and he will use any instrument to do it.”

It would offer them a chance to drum the former prime minister out of parliament, just as they drummed him out of No 10. It would offer them a chance to excise the malignant cancer of Johnsonian populism, and all the division, dishonesty and destruction that has caused such immense damage to their party. It would give them a golden opportunity to end, once and for all, the political career of the charlatan, conman and serial liar who has so debased British politics and public life.

[See also: Undermining Sue Gray’s integrity won’t save Boris Johnson]

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