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20 March 2023

Boris Johnson’s political future rests on this week’s partygate hearing

Will the “greased piglet” wriggle free again?

By Rachel Wearmouth

Boris Johnson will today reveal how he plans to defend claims he lied to parliament over rule-breaking parties in Downing Street during lockdown. (Curious as to who’s paying his estimated £220,000 legal bill? It’s you.)

The former prime minister is due to appear before the Commons Privileges Committee, chaired by Labour’s Harriet Harman but with a majority of Conservative MPs, on Wednesday 22 March. It is investigating whether Johnson knowingly or recklessly misled MPs and whether he was therefore in contempt of parliament. The committee can recommend a punishment (which MPs vote on), and if that includes a lengthy suspension, a recall petition and by-election could be triggered. These seven MPs, then, hold Johnson’s political future in their hands.

[See also: Why the privileges committee must continue to investigate Boris Johnson]

On the face of it, there is a wealth of evidence against Johnson. Pictures, accounts and the fact that he was fined by the police all suggest he had at least some knowledge of what was happening in his own house. His defence is expected to reveal WhatsApp messages from civil servants and No 10 staff, apparently showing he relied on advice and believed the gatherings were work events.

Aside from navigating the nitty-gritty of parliamentary procedure, creating a compelling narrative is the real aim for Johnson, who does not seem to have given up hope of a return to high office. But the image of a once-mighty politician blaming former staff for his misconduct is not one he’ll want to project. 

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Allies have tried to paint the process as a “witch hunt”, claiming Harman is biased and that the former Whitehall mandarin Sue Gray, soon to be Keir Starmer’s chief of staff, was out to get him.

[See also: Keir Starmer essay: This is what I believe]

One Tory MP, who laments the former premier’s “wasted potential”, does not believe Johnson will stick it out: “I think we’ll get to the local elections, he’ll quietly slip a letter to his Uxbridge and South Ruislip association saying he will stand down. What’s Boris Johnson’s currency? It’s being a winner. He won’t want to go out losing Uxbridge; he’ll want to be remembered as a winner.” 

Rishi Sunak is understandably eager to take the political sting out of the spectacle. He is expected to offer a free vote on the committee’s recommendations, and the former chancellor George Osborne suggested on Channel 4’s The Andrew Neil Show on Sunday 19 March that it was “not clear” the PM would campaign for Johnson in any by-election.

Like Sunak, most Tory MPs fighting to save their seats probably wish the unseemly Johnson saga would go away. Whether the former PM is prepared to go quietly is another matter.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: Honours from Boris Johnson all round at the Daily Mail?]

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