A comeback looks unlikely, but the Johnson carnival will continue to plague the Tories

Just before the beginning of the trial, one MP was worrying: “I hope they don’t fuck it up.” He was not alone in being nervous that the privileges committee would make a mess of its interrogation of Boris Johnson and give the greased piglet hope of escape from being turned into spit roast. So the first thing to say is that the seven MPs on the committee did a professional job with a systematic and forensic inquisition. You will have been disappointed if you expected them to get him blubbing that he lied, lied and lied again about Partygate. But if you anticipated a confession of his sins, then you are clearly not acquainted with the character of the accused.

It was a familiar performance from him, a whirlpool of evasive waffle, obfuscation and misdirection. He’d remembered to get his hair cut, but occasionally forgot not to wig out in the dock. “This is nonsense, I mean complete nonsense!” he blustered at one line of questioning he didn’t care for. “The famous union jack cake remained in its Tupperware box,” he remarked, rather pathetically, when grilled about the birthday party in the cabinet room for which he received a police fine.

It was a long session that will have changed few minds. On the subject of Mr Johnson and Partygate, both Westminster and the country long since divided into two camps. On one side are those who believe that the former prime minister brazenly lied to the Commons in an attempt to cover up law-breaking at Number 10. In the contrary camp are those who think he didn’t lie or it has been blown out of proportion. I doubt that anything said on Wednesday afternoon moved opinion. Which is bad news for him because those who share his belief that he is a titan torn down by pettifogging pygmies are greatly outnumbered by those who think he is an incorrigible scoundrel who deceived to try to hide an appalling scandal.

Sir Bernard Jenkin was withering about Mr Johnson’s claims that large, alcohol-lubricated leaving dos” were “essential” for the smooth running of the place

The committee will decide on “the balance of probabilities” and you could see the way the scales were tipping in their minds by their responses to his protestations of “hand on heart” honesty. One standout observation came from Harriet Harman, chairing the inquisition dressed in black, when she scorned his claim that he had sought “advice” on whether or not crowded gatherings had broken lockdown rules when he himself had been present. “If I was going at 100mph and I saw the speedometer saying 100mph, it would be a bit odd, wouldn’t it, if I said: ‘Somebody assured me that I wasn’t.’ Because it’s what you’ve seen with your own eyes.” Alberto Costa, the Conservative MP for South Leicestershire, spoke softly but with deadly intent as he dismantled the accused on why he relied on the opinion of one of his spin doctors, rather than taking proper counsel from senior officials and lawyers, before telling repeated untruths to the Commons. Sir Bernard Jenkin, a fellow Brexiter who has known him for decades, was withering about Mr Johnson’s claims that large, alcohol-lubricated “leaving dos” and “thank you” parties for his aides were “essential” for the smooth running of the place. On this topic, the former prime minister became manic: “The business of the government had to be carried on!” That was the most preposterous of his claims, the idea that the rules allowed Number 10 to throw morale-boosting drinks parties for his underlings at a time when the country was being told that people could not hold the hand of a dying loved one.

In this space last week, I suggested that we could be witnesses to the beginning of the end of Boris Johnson as a significant force in British politics. I did so knowing that it has always been risky to forecast the demise of a man who has engineered more escapes than Harry Houdini and more comebacks than Frank Sinatra. At the turn of the year, he thought that he had a realistic chance of supplanting Rishi Sunak and staging a return to Number 10. And he was not alone in believing this to be a plausible scenario.

There are far fewer people who think so now. “Never say never with Boris,” comments one former cabinet minister. “But it now looks a lot less likely that he’s coming back. The number of my colleagues who are prepared to put the interests of Boris above the interests of the Conservative party is now very small.”

Mr Sunak would be especially delighted if he never again had to hear the name of his predecessor

On the same afternoon that he was interrogated over Partygate, his dwindling influence and increasing isolation were being demonstrated on a different parliamentary stage. The inquisition was paused for Commons votes on Mr Sunak’s renegotiation of the Northern Ireland protocol. For his usual self-serving reasons, Mr Johnson has sought to destabilise the prime minister and incite a rebellion against him. When the moment came, only 21 other Tory MPs were prepared to join him in the No lobby.

“Everyone’s sick of it,” says one Conservative MP, expressing the prevalent feeling among the great majority of them. “Sick and tired of Brexit and of Boris.” They want to forget, and hope to induce amnesia among the public as well, about all the grisly pantomime and lurid psychodramas of the Johnson years. Mr Sunak would be especially delighted if he never again had to hear the name of his predecessor.

The prime minister is not going to be that lucky. The Johnson circus, while looking extremely moth-eaten, is not over yet. This has some weeks, even months, still to run. The next significant event will be the publication of the committee’s verdict and my guess is that this won’t happen before the local elections in May.

When sitting in judgment, the committee tries to produce unanimous findings, believing that to be very important for its authority as the invigilator of the conduct of MPs. Some conjecture that one or more of the four Tories on the body will ultimately flinch from declaring that a former leader of their party and prime minister knowingly deceived the Commons. They could still hold him in contempt of parliament by ruling that he “recklessly” misled MPs. The questioning suggested that this is the way they could go.

When deciding on an appropriate penalty, it is usual for the committee to consider aggravating and mitigating factors. In this case, there are clearly a lot of aggravating ones. He has prior offences against parliamentary standards for not keeping to the rules on declarations, he misled the Commons on repeated occasions and on a matter of huge national importance, and he held the highest office in the government. That easily merits a suspension from the Commons for at least 10 days, the threshold that would almost certainly trigger a special byelection in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat. Mr Johnson’s remaining friends claim that he would fight such a byelection even though current polling suggests he’d lose. That spectacle would draw the attention of media from around the globe. They would flock to the constituency to gorge on the juicy theatre of a former prime minister battling to save his political career. One senior Tory groans at the prospect of “weeks more of Boris and scandal”.

Mr Johnson arrogantly told the committee that he wouldn’t accept their verdict if he didn’t like it. Frankly, my dear, what he thinks won’t matter a damn. It will be up to the Commons as a whole to decide whether or not to ratify the committee’s findings. We can assume that all opposition MPs will agree to sanction him. Number 10 says Mr Sunak will not issue instructions to Tory MPs: they will have a “free vote”. The prime minister hasn’t yet indicated how he would vote. “The government controls the business of the House and the prime minister controls his own diary so he can always be abroad,” suggests one worldly wise Tory. Yet even if he managed to duck the vote, Mr Sunak would still have to decide whether or not to throw his support and the party’s resources into helping Mr Johnson fight to keep his seat. If the voters in Uxbridge kick him out of the Commons, and he responds by trying to find another constituency, the Tory leader would then be faced with another choice Mr Sunak would rather not make: whether or not to facilitate the return to parliament of someone who had effectively been expelled from it for dishonesty. Most Tory MPs are desperate to be done with the Johnson carnival, but it still has the capacity to dog and damage them for some time to come. Which is the punishment they richly deserve because they are the people who put him in Number 10 to start with.

• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer