Either you’re an idiot or a liar, were the words Theresa May effectively chided Boris Johnson with when the interim Sue Gray report on partygate was released last year. “Which was it?” she asked. To avoid the career-ending charge of intentionally misleading parliament, Johnson pleaded idiocy in front of the Privileges Committee today.
Sceptical about whether her words would resonate, Harriet Harman, the select committee’s chairwoman, began by telling Johnson that this was “about the truth”. How wrong she was. This was about whether Johnson could avoid a ten-day suspension from the Commons and thereby avoid the risk of losing his seat. This was Johnson’s four hours in the spotlight, a chance, perhaps his last, to stitch back together his career.
When he entered the committee room to face questions, a depleted group of Johnson ultras – Mogg, Fabricant, Duddridge – welcomed their hero with a quiet bleating. They still believe. The last time Johnson faced a committee of MPs was the eve of his defenestration. Three months later he flew back from the Dominican Republic to stake a doomed claim for No 10. The man does not understand the meaning of “no”.
Today was simply his latest foray. His triumph over these pesky MPs would coincide with him leading the rebellion against Rishi Sunak’s Brexit vote. One Johnson ultra was overheard praising the “optics” of the timing of the vote. On cue, ten minutes into his opening statement, the bell rang for the vote, and Johnson left to lodge his dissent against proposals he himself supports before trundling back into the committee room to face questions.
The crux of the committee’s investigation was not whether Johnson thought he was breaking the guidance during various events in Downing Street. He would always deny that. It was whether, having reflected on the events, reminded the public of the guidance, read all the media reports, and consulted his advisers – after all that – he had doubts when he addressed the House of Commons and insisted that the guidance had been followed. Each question, therefore, was designed to peer inside his mind, to uncover what he knew. Johnson shook his freshly trimmed head at these attempts like the Churchill dog in the insurance advert. His protestations became well-honed verbiage.
We did follow some guidance, just not that guidance! We did have Perspex screens – but in another room! I saw the trestle tables in the garden, but not what was on the tables! I didn’t notice the cake on the table, let alone the regular piss-ups! We had wall signs telling people which way to walk, anyway!
Beneath the bluster was a more sinister commitment to bring his colleagues down with him. He named Downing Staff, jeopardising their anonymity, with feigned regret. He said if he knew the guidance was being broken then all his staff did too. The underlining message was clear: you wouldn’t want to tarnish all those hardworking civil servants and advisers, would you? He was at pains to point out that the “Prime Minister” – a phrase spat out with derision – also received a fine for attending one of the Downing Street events.
Johnson bumbled on to the apparent exasperation of his lawyers. Parliament.tv, where the hearing was being streamed, reportedly crashed. MPs might be sick of him; fans of daytime TV are not. Johnson used to be a spectacle, but his performance will remind his colleagues why they got rid of him. He’s reduced himself to a parody, a smaller figure than he used to be. As he swiped away accusations of cake and singing, the number of Tory rebels, carrying with them Johnson’s hopes of return, was announced in the House of Commons. A mere 22. It will be Rishi Sunak who will be partying in Downing Street tonight.