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The Party’s Over

Lambasted by a House of Commons committee, Boris Johnson resigned in disgrace. But with a Tory drubbing on the cards in the next UK general election, don’t be surprised if he bounces back to lead the Conservati­ves in opposition, writes

- Conor Lenihan

The ascent of Boris Johnson to power was as dramatic as his very rapid decline. His legacy at this point is leading the Brexit campaign, and his personal contributi­on to its success. Rather cannily, when ensconced as prime minister he played on the public sensibilit­y that Brexit was being dragged out unnecessar­ily and his mission was to ‘get it done’.

This grit and determinat­ion saw him catapulted into a landslide majority of 80 seats, in the process dealing a crushing blow to his Labour opponents by winning ‘Red Wall’ seats in the midlands and north of England. These heartland Labour seats were purloined on the promise that he was interested in levelling up these constituen­cies that had voted for Brexit.

Politicall­y, Johnson fell prey to the politics of Covid, Tory sleaze, and controvers­ies about his behaviour in office. His party thought it better to ditch him, only to discover that his replacemen­t Liz Truss was more radical than they could have imagined.

Johnson has been a lightning rod for controvers­y, whether in his career as a journalist or in public office. History may take a more rounded view of his actions than the conclusion­s of the House of Commons Committee of Privileges. Derided as a ‘kangaroo court’ by Johnson, his peers assessed that he repeatedly misled parliament about the nature of drinks parties and other staff functions at his office.

Unfortunat­ely for Johnson, such was the hysteria induced by the Covid pandemic that it is virtually impossible for anyone to be neutral about his guilt or innocence. Sensing he would never get a fair hearing, Johnson, on reading the Committee’s draft conclusion­s, resigned his parliament­ary seat.

People who lost family or loved ones

in the pandemic find it hard to forgive Johnson when confronted by the evidence of the parties at Number 10. At the same time, it is near impossible for him to establish his sincerity in stating that he believed that various Downing Street events were within the terms of the Covid rules and guidance.

Johnson told the parliament­ary inquiry that when he expressed the view in the House of Commons that there were no breaches of the Covid restrictio­ns, he genuinely believed that was the case. A jury of his peers strongly disagreed.

The House of Commons Committee of Privileges set out to establish whether the former prime minister had deliberate­ly misled parliament, an offence that could cost him his seat. The committee analysed evidence on six gatherings at Downing Street in 2020 and 2021 when Covid lockdown restrictio­ns were in place in the UK.

The Committee concluded that Johnson had personal knowledge that should have led him, at least after due reflection and as gathering succeeded gathering, to question whether the Covid rules and guidance were being complied with.

Johnson argued that it did not occur to him that the meetings were in breach of rules or guidance. “This is despite the fact that he must have been aware of the number of people attending, of the absence of official work being done, and of the absence of social distancing without visible mitigation­s,” the Committee report noted.

In each case, Johnson argued that he genuinely believed the events were covered by a work-related exemption to the rules. He also argued that efforts to socially distance and the putting in place of some mitigation­s where possible were sufficient for compliance with the guidance.

The UK’s Covid lockdown rules stipulated that a gathering had to be essential or reasonably necessary for

work purposes. In the Committee’s view: “A workplace ‘thank you’, leaving drink, birthday celebratio­n or motivation­al event is obviously neither essential nor reasonably necessary. Mr Johnson is adamant that he believed all of the events which he attended and of which he had direct knowledge were essential. That belief, which he continues to assert, has no reasonable basis in the rules or on the facts.”

The Committee also concluded that there was no obvious social distancing at any of the events. “The mitigation­s described by Mr Johnson do not relate to the activities complained of. At best they are such marginal expedients as not touching pens or passing things to each other, except of course alcohol,” the report stated.

In his evidence, Johnson conceded that social distancing was not possible at the Downing Street events but maintained the guidance was complied with completely. Johnson referred to social distancing of less than two metres as “imperfect” social distancing, and the Committee noted that this term was not in the Covid guidance.

“We conclude that Mr Johnson’s persistenc­e in putting forward this unsustaina­ble interpreta­tion of the guidance is both disingenuo­us and a retrospect­ive contrivanc­e to mislead the House and this Committee,” said the report.

Committee members concluded that it was highly unlikely on the balance of probabilit­ies that Johnson could have genuinely believed at the time of his statements to the House that the rules or guidance were being complied with. “We conclude that when he told the House and this Committee that the rules and guidance were being complied with, his own knowledge was such that he deliberate­ly misled the House and this Committee.”

In a public rebuttal, Johnson declared: “I knew exactly what events I had attended in Number 10. I knew what I had seen, with my own eyes, and like the current PM, I believed that these events were lawful. I believed that my participat­ion was lawful and required by my job, and that is indeed the implicatio­n of the exhaustive police inquiry.

“When I told the House of Commons that ‘the guidance was followed completely’ I meant it. It wasn’t just what I thought: it’s what we all thought — that we were following the rules and following the guidance completely — notwithsta­nding the difficulti­es of maintainin­g social distancing at all times.

“The committee now says that I deliberate­ly misled the House, and at the moment I spoke I was consciousl­y concealing from the House my knowledge of illicit events. This is rubbish. It is a lie. In order to reach this deranged conclusion, the Committee is obliged to say a series of things that are patently absurd or contradict­ed by the facts.”

The Committee’s report was endorsed by a majority of 350 to seven when it was put to a vote at Westminste­r.

Around 200 Conservati­ve members of parliament chose to abstain rather than vote against their former leader. This group included current prime minister Rishi Sunak, who rather lamely pleaded that he did not want to influence anyone by casting a vote.

No matter how lurid the controvers­y or criticism that besets Johnson, he has a remarkable ability to bounce back. The Tory party is aware that its long years of dominance in British politics are coming to an end. Sunak’s prospects of retaining power seem remote. There is widespread disenchant­ment over the Conservati­ves’ handling of the UK economy and also about Brexit.

It is not beyond the bounds of possibilit­y that Boris Johnson will run again for parliament under the Tory banner in the next election. Given that the Tories will experience significan­t seat losses, in the aftermath of a general election defeat Johnson will be a serious contender to lead the party again.

Leading from the opposition benches may actually suit the Johnson style better than being in office. It may be that Johnson will be able to persuade his broken colleagues that he can punch holes in Keir Starmer while the party regroups.

 ?? ?? Boris Johnson described the Privileges Committee report as ‘the final knife-thrust in a protracted political assassinat­ion’
Boris Johnson described the Privileges Committee report as ‘the final knife-thrust in a protracted political assassinat­ion’

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