Voices: Bedraggled Boris Johnson’s tired braggadocio isn’t enough to distract his interrogators
It really wouldn’t be an episode of the ‘Boris Johnson Show’ if the star and central character kicked off with an expression of regret, contrition or even sympathy for all those who followed the rules, made sacrifices and endured hardships while Johnson himself presided over a culture of serial rule-breaking and contempt for the public who weren’t invited to “bring their own booze”.
Instead, at the outset, Johnson attacked the Privileges Committee for not publishing all the evidence and allowing “parliament and the public to make their own minds up”. He told the chair of the committee, Harriet Harman she was prejudiced. Immediately he tried therefore to undermine the committee, the better to continue his fight when the whole House – including ardent Boris fans such as Nadine Dorries and James Duddridge will try and organise a rearguard action to save him. However, by the end he just looked tired.
In the same way, Johnson sought to discredit a key witness, Dominic Cummings as a “liar” – bit rich at this point – and dismiss his evidence because he’s motivated by animus. Which may be true but doesn’t necessarily mean that, on this occasion at least, Cummings has been making things up. Johnson points to the presence of the official photographer at “work” events, as proof that they couldn’t have been regarded by those involved as rule breaking. Perhaps, but it might simply be another example of the carefree disregard of the rules that characterised Downing Street at the time. He also took the opportunity to brag about the Covid vaccine rollout.
Mostly, though, that’s all beside the point, and just Johnson following his usual tactics of distraction and obfuscation. The point of the inquiry, as Harman tried to remind everyone, is to determine whether he, Johnson, had lied to the House about all rules and – importantly – guidance being followed at all times (or words to that effect and impression given to that effect. As Harman stated, they’re not supposed to be re-running the Partygate inquiry.
Johnson’s principal line of defence is that he was never told or warned rules were broken, the committee has no evidence to that effect, and he basically didn’t know what was going on. He also didn’t think the guidance was all that specific or strong or practical in their cramped offices. This is a very weak line of defence. We know, already, there was widespread rule-breaking and defiance of guidance. The police fines and ample other evidence proves that already. He was there at some events. He admits that social distancing was not kept to, because it was not possible, but that does mean that the guidance was not followed. However, a key point, Johnson didn’t tell the House that fact.
We also see from the statements by his various advisers that he was told, albeit perhaps later on, that his lines to parliament were not realistic. The cabinet secretary, Simon Case, says he was never asked if the rules or guidance were broken: so who was giving Johnson the “assurances” that rules and advice had always been followed?
Johnson also says that everyone around him thought the rules and guidance were being stuck to – but that could simply be the restyle of the permissive culture he inculcated in Downing Street. In other words, “if the boss thinks it’s OK, it must be OK. Let’s send someone to get a suitcase of booze brought back”.
In a remarkably performative act for a man who seems godless, Johnson took a solemn oath on the King James Bible, an obvious appeal to the traditionalists who think him something like a Tory messiah, and about to enjoy a Second Coming. The oath should really have been the one that people take in court: to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Which it seems he has no intention of ever doing. His biggest whopper was perhaps telling Harman and her colleagues he was always “transparent” with the House. That could be his undoing.