Voices: The Boris Johnson circus is back in town – reminding us why he can never be trusted again
I’m still deciding which treats will best accompany Boris Johnson’s appearance before the House of Commons Committee of Privileges. Seeing as he took the biscuit so many times in lockdown, and spent so long cheekily getting away with it, maybe a pack of Jammie Dodgers. An enormous cake also seems appropriate as we observe the high protest of cakeism in a last-ditch defence of the doctrine that defines his approach to policy choices (and indeed life itself). And, of course, a nice bacon sandwich as we watch the infamous greased piglet of Westminster finally meet his fate.
We are, after all, promised a four-hour roasting of Johnson by the magnificent seven parliamentarians cross-questioning him, chaired by the redoubtable Harriet Harman, who is not the type to fall for his infamous charm. It's not a trial and it's not a criminal offence to lie to parliament; but hypocrisy is one of the most damning indictments in the British moral code, and this will feel like an impeachment (and rightly). Should be fun, then.
My only fear is that, given the hype, which is building the event up like a World Cup final between England and Germany, the session actually settles down into a rather dull slog. I could see Johnson stonewalling, and the MPs failing to breach his advanced defences.
These defensive techniques, I’m sorry to say, have been nurtured and honed since Johnson was a boy at Eton. He’s “inadvertently misled” – housemasters, editors, wives, girlfriends, readers of every publication he’s written for, parliament, his various party leaders, colleagues and rivals, the great British electorate, and even the Queen; and, frankly, he’s always gotten away with it, squealing and scampering away with a smirk.
He is one of those people, surprisingly rare, who exploits the natural human tendency to assume they're being told the truth. It's how conmen on the English riviera prey on wealthy widows. Let us hope Harman, Bernard Jenkin, Charles Walker, Allan Dorans (a former copper) and the others are more worldly.
The procedure of a Commons select committee is flawed, however. Each has to have their "go", and that means that each MP is given a relatively short time to plug away at a couple of points, and then they move on. The bombardment on any given issue thus may soon pass, with no sustained attack.
As with some backbenchers at Prime Ministers Questions, the less intellectually agile members of the Commons sometimes blow their chance to get something out of a witness by asking grandstanding questions such as “aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”, “will you resign?”, "is it OK to lie to parliament” or “why do you think the public were so angry?” Johnson has no problem with that sort of stuff, and never has. This time, he’ll also have top barrister Lord Pannick KC whispering guidance in his ear. The MPs will have to do better than they usually do to make any progress with England’s greatest living dissembler. But will they?
One can only hope that they’ll be well enough informed and prepared by the excellent parliamentary clerks to do so, and between them have worked out tactics to get at the truth. They need to go in on the facts and evidence – dates, times, precise wordings, images that speak volumes, and video too (as we are promised).
Johnson doesn’t do detail, and throws chaff whenever he’s near it. He will try to wind them up by challenging their legitimacy, remit, fairness, prejudices, competence and even their right to ask him lots of impertinent questions. This is not going to get them on side, but it’s not intended to. He may even act hurt or indignant, by turns.
He can try and do humble, head bowed, semi-ashamed of the actions of his staff who simply let him down with bad behaviour and poor advice. It’s designed to distract and to endear him to his remaining supporters in the Commons and the wider party, and keep his political career alive. Being a combative, occasionally offensive battler is all part of the Johnson image.
He’ll bang on about Sue Gray and Keir Starmer until he’s called to order. He'll tell Harman she's already made her mind up. He’ll make a joke about cake and not singing happy birthday. There’ll be references to classical Greek poets. Many still find it mesmerising. These MPs probably won't.
In that case, they just need to pick the right questions, and press them hard. They need to ask, for example, about the Abba party, entirely ignored by the Sue Gray investigation. They should put Dominic Cummings accusations to him. They ought to ask about when his principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, told him in December 2021 that telling the Commons that “guidance had been followed at all times” was not a “realistic" position; but Johnson then went down to Commons less than an hour later and stated that “the guidance was followed, and the rules were followed at all times".
I doubt that this subtly different formulation, subtly carving out the loophole that guidance wasn’t “followed at all times”, even if rules were, is not the kind of thing – in this context – was done inadvertently. Rather it seems like a conscious attempt to give a misleading impression to parliament and public alike. It’s very lawyerly, but unconvincing now in the cold light of the post-pandemic day.
How did Johnson live in that building and chat and gossip and not know what was going on? Was he deaf? Or did he choose not to see? And why, when the facts about breaches of Covid rules became clear did he not correct the parliamentary record at the earliest opportunity?
King James bible or not, will he tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth this afternoon?
At the end of it all (and many folks will have better things to do this afternoon anyway), we may be little the wiser; but we will be usefully reminded once again about what kind of a man Boris Johnson is, why his own party finally had enough of him, why he cannot be trusted, and why he is unfit for office. But we knew all that anyway.