A damning report on the conduct of Boris Johnson and “partygate” has left the former prime minister with many difficult questions to answer. The cross-party group of MPs on the House of Commons’ Privileges Committee found Johnson may have misled parliament on several occasions based on the evidence provided to them, and that “it appears that Mr Johnson did not correct the statements that he repeatedly made and did not use the well-established procedures of the House to correct something that is wrong at the earliest opportunity”.
Johnson seems to feel he has a glimmer of hope. After yesterday’s news that the civil servant who led the inquiry into partygate, Sue Gray, would be joining the Labour Party as Keir Starmer’s chief of staff, Johnson has been trying a new line of defence. “It is surreal to discover that the committee proposes to rely on evidence culled and orchestrated by Sue Gray,” he said in a statement, as if her departure from government undermines the partygate investigation. Unfortunately for Johnson, there is plenty of evidence against him, namely police fines, photographs and numerous witness testimonies.
Plus, though the former PM may be ready to dismiss Gray’s findings, he has previously accepted them and apologised for them. His new position on the legitimacy of Gray gives his supporters something to rally around, but it will be difficult to shore up when he is face to face with the committee when it is armed with a portfolio of evidence. Should it find that Johnson deliberately misled parliament, it could lead to a range of sanctions. If, for example, he were to be suspended from parliament for ten days or more, this would automatically trigger a recall petition, which could lead to Johnson losing his seat if at least 10 per cent of his constituents sign.
Could this really be end of Johnson’s political career? He is widely believed to be plotting a comeback following his drawn-out fall from grace – and questions about his integrity don’t seem to faze him.
But the Johnson campaign is running out of steam. Yesterday, he gave his first UK speech since resigning as prime minister, and publicly declared his thoughts on the Northern Ireland protocol and the agreement Rishi Sunak signed with the EU at the beginning of the week. Johnson told the crowd that he had “mixed feelings” about the deal, and although he “hopes” it will be successful, he wants the UK to “have the guts” to fall back to the controversial Northern Ireland protocol that his government brought forward.
“I’m going to find it very difficult to vote for something like this myself,” Johnson said, “because I believed we should’ve done something very different – no matter how much plaster came off the ceiling in Brussels.”
[See also: Sue Gray’s appointment as chief of staff is a coup for Keir Starmer]
Johnson said he’d find it “very difficult” to vote for the deal, but did not rule out supporting it either. His admittance of “mixed feelings” implies that he could be placated, that he could fall either way. The speech felt more like an attempt to draw out supporters, rather than from a figure who is in a strong position, bolstered by allies. It may implicitly give credence to the whispers in Westminster that Johnson has not been able to whip up much opposition to the deal. One senior Tory told me yesterday that Johnson is finished, and even his closest allies accept there is no benefit in pretending otherwise.
Johnson’s attempt to erode Gray’s authority looks desperate. And it is unlikely to have any influence on the outcome of the inquiry. If Johnson is found to have wilfully misled parliament, with his authority on Brexit in tatters, there seems little justification to keep him around.
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