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23 March 2023

Boris Johnson can roar, but Rishi Sunak has no reason to fear him

The former PM’s unconvincing performance before the Privileges Committee shows he has lost his old magic.

By Andrew Marr

This is the story of the Lion who was, and the Dragon who wasn’t. And the winner at the end of the story is Rishi Sunak.

The Lion who was, Boris Johnson, spent the afternoon of Wednesday 22 March like a captured great cat, caught behind bars and rudely prodded by unintimidated observers wielding sticks. He can glare very effectively. He can snarl. But Tory MPs no longer find him menacing.

He arrived in front of the Privileges Committee with a haircut – the mane shorn – and a formidable amount of preparation. It was almost as if, this time, he realised he had to be properly across the detail. The committee, made up of three political opponents and four real foes – all Tories – had a simple proposition for him.

He had told parliament, they pointed out, that no lockdown rules had been broken in Downing Street. But they had photographs showing him in rooms with glasses and bottles, people crammed together, and the appearance, at least, of merriment. They had written statements from his closest civil service advisers confirming that they had never told him the rules were followed. He had lied to parliament. Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

Johnson’s response was not, in fact, entirely ridiculous. He made great use of the “within reason” get-out in the regulations, reminded the MPs of how cribbed and crammed No 10 actually is, and insisted that part of his job as a leader was to boost morale and calm dissent by giving departing apparatchiks a send-off.

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But you could tell by their expressions and body language that the Privileges Committee didn’t really buy it. We will have to wait for around three weeks for their verdict. One well plugged-in senior Tory told me he expected them to find Johnson guilty, but to limit the proposed sanction to five days or so of suspension from the Commons, which would avoid a recall petition and a by-election. The same MP said that Johnson, having been found guilty of misleading the Commons, would be finished in terms of a parliamentary comeback.

Perhaps. I don’t know about the verdict but there is a real sense that Johnson has lost his old magic, certainly so far as most Tory MPs are concerned. He quickly became grumpy and tetchy; in doing his best to stick to the script, there was barely a verbal flourish. At times he appeared almost to be begging for his future from MPs whose names, in the old days, he probably didn’t even know. For the current Prime Minister, who has been watching icily from afar, this would have been a relief.

The Dragon who wasn’t matters more. Ever since October, when Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister, a shadow has been hanging over him. It’s the shadow of a ferocious, snorting, smoking beast that could finish him off at any time: the Tory right. This week, the Dragon struck.

Provoked by emotion on the Northern Ireland protocol deal that Sunak made with the EU, and which is hated by the DUP, the full might of the Conservative rebel right marshalled in open sight against the Prime Minister. Boris Johnson. Liz Truss. Jacob Rees-Mogg. The ultras of the European Research Group. Priti Patel. Iain Duncan Smith. Simon Clarke.

Three former leaders, including two former prime ministers – and almost enough people to form a semi-experienced cabinet. And yet, there were only 22 Tory rebels in total who actually voted against Sunak. The Dragon was revealed to be largely composed of coloured paper and a smoke machine, barely concealing the figures of the usual suspects. I don’t think Mr Sunak was very frightened.

It’s absolutely true that another 48 Tories abstained or were paired and that if all the rebels and abstainers were put together, Sunak would lose his majority. But Northern Ireland is a very special case. The rebels appear to be a pretty incoherent grouping and the excessive number of would-be leaders means that they, really, have none.

In day-to-day terms, the Prime Minister will surely conclude that if this is the worst the anti-Sunak Tories can do, he can relax. He won’t be completely safe, ever, and certainly not before the May local elections. But, over the course of one afternoon, he seems to have lost the possibility of any roaring return by Boris Johnson, and lost that ominous shadow of right-wing rebellion that has been hanging over him for months.

No lion; and, it turns out, no dragon either. Did he sleep well overnight?

[See also: Boris Johnson won’t be back]

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