The last few days have been a political fever dream. Every traumatic event for a generation has suddenly featured again in our lives. We have marked the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq; banks have been collapsing in a manner that is all too reminiscent of the 2008 financial crisis; Donald Trump is back in the news; and there has been a Conservative rebellion over Brexit. Yesterday’s Privileges Committee hearing reminded us of the Covid-19 lockdown and Boris Johnson. It is just as well that Jeremy Hunt’s Budget avoided any announcements on the taxation of pasties or we would have had the full set.
For many, Johnson’s appearance before a parliamentary inquiry provoked mixed feelings. Dishonesty, especially in parliament, should not go unpunished and it is welcome that Johnson is being held to account for his statements on partygate. But, both in the hearing itself and in the preceding days, we saw a familiar and infuriating range of tricks from Johnson and his allies to escape that accountability.
It is a longstanding and well-established character trait that Johnson believes he should be entitled to do whatever he pleases, that he believes – as his Eton housemaster put it in a letter reproduced in Andrew Gimson’s biography – that “it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else”.
This attitude was all too apparent in the evidence Johnson gave yesterday and the arguments set out in advance of the hearing. His supporters are affronted that the Privileges Committee is looking at whether he recklessly misled the House of Commons and not just whether he intentionally misled it. And they are affronted that the committee contains the former Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman. This in spite of the fact the House of Commons – while Johnson was prime minister – passed a motion with that remit and a motion putting Harman on the committee. No one voted against it. In any event, the committee by this narrative is a “kangaroo court” unless, of course, it exonerates Johnson.
The former PM’s supporters were affronted that the committee was set to rely on evidence obtained by Sue Gray, the civil servant who conducted an inquiry into partygate and has now been appointed Keir Starmer’s chief of staff. But in the event yesterday’s hearing made it clear that the committee is not relying on Gray and it was Johnson who prayed in aid her conclusions.
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The burden of proof is too low, argues Johnson. It should be on a par with a criminal prosecution not on the balance of possibilities. If judicial review had been available, Johnson argues, the process would be held invalid. Put aside the irony of Johnson – who sought to curtail judicial review – making this argument; the principal point is that the committee does not have the ability to impose criminal sanctions. As for the procedural propriety, the process is much more robust than the many previous occasions when he has been sacked for lying.
If the complaint is that the inquiry should be more judicial in nature, the build-up was also accompanied by a campaign to exert political pressure on the Conservative members of the committee. For those seeking re-election, Johnson’s allies have made it clear that even participating in the process (remember, a process to which no MP objected) would be held against them. So much for wanting a quasi-judicial process.
In truth Johnson and his allies do not want any kind of process. If done by MPs, they are partisans. If done by an outsider, the argument would be that MPs should not be held accountable by the unelected.
The intention of these arguments and Johnson’s petulant tone is to present him as the victim of an establishment stitch-up. The desire is not to convince those looking closely at the details, carefully weighing up the evidence. That was always beyond him. Far easier to dismiss opponents as engaged in a vendetta, claim the process is rigged and argue that it is the elite versus the tribune of the people. Both Trump and Johnson have engaged in this approach this week, just as they have both done before.
There is, it has to be said, a political constituency for this. It was the technique that won the Brexit vote and “got Brexit done” in the 2019 general election. It involves trashing our institutions – the courts and parliament, for example – that favours direct democracy over representative democracy and disparages any grasp of detail as nit-picking and concern over standards as pomposity. It is populism pure and simple.
Johnson will not go quietly. When the committee concludes that he is in contempt of parliament, as surely now seems likely, he will continue to disparage and deny. If it recommends a suspension of ten days or more and thereby triggers a recall petition, which is not quite so certain, matters will turn very ugly. Johnson will not care about the collateral damage to parliament, trust in politics or the fortunes of the Conservative Party.
This will prove to be a test for Rishi Sunak. He is right to say that matters such as this should be treated as a free vote (as was the tradition until undermined by Johnson) but he knows that he will face great pressure from Johnson’s supporters in parliament, the party membership and the media.
This should not just be resisted – it is also an opportunity for Sunak to distance himself from the dishonesty and populism of his predecessor but one. If – and it remains an “if” – the committee recommends a lengthy suspension, Sunak should show leadership and vote to endorse it.
[See also: Boris Johnson can roar, but Rishi Sunak has no reason to fear him]