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29 March 2023

Boris Johnson the clown’s first encore

Before the parliamentary Privileges Committee, he hunched his shoulders like an actor playing Churchill. But the music had stopped. The party was over. The circus had moved on…

By Edward Docx

Enter the clown – ambassador of meaninglessness, ostensibly bold, ever venturesome, swearing on the Bible; his word his bond. What does he want from the afternoon?

A chance for atonement, perhaps? Certainly not; for let it be known that the clown believes in neither offence nor censure; his life, his work, one long assertion that the deeper truth of human affairs is revelry, debauch, appetite and spectacle. Exoneration then? Not quite. Not as the pedestrian world of reality and consequence might understand such a word.

No, what the clown wants from this little encore is to retain what he is most afraid of losing. What the clown wants is complicity. He wants the audience to see and know and investigate and witness… and yet to allow, to warrant, to yield. He wants the world of rules and guidance to cede to the world of misrule and recklessness. He wants to assert that the truth of the polity was ever a party and never a court. And don’t we know it – deep down? And are we not churlish, therefore, to insist otherwise? Let us admit it then. Come, he ventures, swear with me.

He sits and looks about himself – affecting the pugilistic demeanour by which he signals he shall once again command the agile forces of absurdity against those of plodding reality. In some ways, the task at hand is the same as it has always been – only much narrower these days, more focused, stripped down. Gone the spectacular circus of his pomp, the nationwide sausage and haddock tours, the great trampolining falsities bouncing up and down at the edge of the continent. Gone the £37bn – neither trackable nor traceable. Gone the whoopee-cushion cabinet, the mock-policy policies, the anti-government government. The great cavort is over. Instead, everything comes down to this effort before the committee; the clown unplugged.

The task at hand. He must assert that he did not realise that he had broken the laws and guidance that he himself had helped draft. He must assert that when (night after night) he laid down the detail of those laws to the public at the national podium, he did not then realise (as he then walked back through the door, across the landings, down the corridors) that he himself was presiding over the epic breaking of those self-same laws in other rooms all over the self-same house. He must assert that this was why as prime minister he could not possibly have lied to parliament.

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And if he can somehow get us all to continue to collude in all this absurdity, he will have won. Or he will at least have secured enough to fight another day – and so retain the chance to reopen the circus. He will have demonstrated that there are no consequences to his actions; that absurdity trumps the rules; that rules themselves are absurdity even when he himself decreed them. Especially when so. How to pull off this tricky task, though?

Drama. Drama is what he needs to conjure. (He hunches his shoulders in a parody of an actor playing Winston Churchill.) Yes, what ­matters is whether he can create enough drama to evade real-world consequence. That’s the prize. And that’s the proof of his deeper argument. His defence will be nonsensical – of course it will: he is an apex clown; what does anyone expect? But all the same it should be delivered with dramatic vehemence; it must fulfil its function; it must be sufficiently diverting; the circus needs its acts if only for mockery. Especially if only for mockery.

The wine and cheese were essential for work purposes, he begins. (His expression now that of a man 10 per cent more in earnest than a man in earnest.) The attendance of my wife and her interior designer was also essential for work purposes. How can you hope to boost morale without reassuring people that an interior designer is present? They should have done the same in the hospitals and care homes where everyone was dying. Especially at birthdays and leaving parties.

[See also: Lying in State: Exclusive extracts from Boris Johnson’s memoir]

We made great efforts to keep people apart all over the building, he continues. Except at the parties. That was different. At the parties, we did everything we could to mitigate risk by not sharing pens in the next room. That is also why we had screens everywhere else in Downing Street except at the parties. (Fervently placing his fists on the table.) Look at the pictures, you can clearly see we are attempting mitigatory measures in the other rooms.

Of course, there were bottles everywhere – we asked people to bring a bottle so we could be clear these were not parties. Please the committee to remember: it was impossible to pass drinks around and remain socially distanced without pouring them from bottles. (A hint of offended patriotism.) Come now, it is customary in this country to toast ignoring the rules – is it not?

Oh, believe me (knuckles seeking heart), the truth is that I myself could not have broken the rules because I was scrupulous in choosing to attend only those parties I attended. And those parties could not have been rule breaking because – as I say – I had absolutely no sense of breaking the rules when I was attending them.

I could only take advice from eyewitnesses and they were clear that their advice wasn’t clear. There was absolutely no way of seeking proper legal advice before misleading parliament because I had helped draft the laws – line by line – and so this would have been insane. (His defence now a masterclass in the effusive presentation of not having the slightest defence.) I mean, why would you ask for legal advice when you yourself drafted the laws and then read them out to the nation? So, you see, I had to rely on the none-legal advisers afterwards. Think about it: any lawyer would have advised me that rules and guidance had been broken – I knew that – and only a fool would have risked such a thing. (His lawyer, David Pannick, ever more scrutable behind him.) Indeed, why would I need to ask advice at all given I was there – except to give me something to pretend to rely on while misleading parliament?

Wrong! (He expostulates.) There was no way I could rely on my own eyes at that time. That is absolute nonsense. (Innocence affronted.) It was crucial not to rely on my own eyes – or, for that matter, my knowledge of the rules and regulations.

Right! Yes! Of course, I would have advised the entire nation to have leaving drinks, Abba parties, birthday bashes… if only I could have done so within the rules at the time. But – and on this I was clear – the rules didn’t allow it; so how could you have expected me to let other people know to ignore the rules except by ignoring them myself? Leading by example. That – if I may say so – is what I believed in then and what I believe in now.

The afternoon closes – as it must – with the clown refusing to acknowledge the validity of the committee should it find him guilty or insist upon reality. “I have very much enjoyed our discussion,” he concludes, undermining his own undermining of himself. “I genuinely think it has been a useful discussion. And I hope it is clear to the committee what was in my heart and my mind.”

And with that he’s away to commune with his two remaining supporters, the Pardoner and the Wife of Bath, both of whom have been tweeting throughout – pressing his none-case and defiantly aching for the return of his magnificent kakistocracy.

Exit the clown pursued by Pannick.

[See also: The death of “Boris” the clown, by Edward Docx]

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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special