For just a moment, you could almost feel sorry for him. Boris Johnson sat in front of the Commons Privileges Committee for hour after gruelling hour this afternoon. And bit by bit, question by question, he simply fell apart.
There were sporadic outbursts of rage and entitlement. “This is just complete nonsense,” he barked at the MPs at one point. “Complete nonsense.” There were looks of startled outrage as the carefully constructed defences he had created were slowly and methodically demolished. But most of all there was just this strange, angry little man-child left utterly exposed.
Behind him, there was an array of silk the likes of which we rarely get to see. Somewhere around £222,000 worth of taxpayer-funded barrister sat with him, including Lord Pannick, whose usual rate is £5,000 an hour. His expressions were a masterclass in legal aloofness. For whole sections he sat with a smile on his lips, as if he’d just been introduced to a charming new jazz album.
But towards the end, even Pannick started to give way. By the time the session ended, he was balanced on the very edge of his chair, the smile gone. In front of him, his client was flailing around, all at sea, his every utterance more preposterous and improbable than the last.
Throughout the week, Johnson’s allies in the press have been stressing that he was preparing to unleash stunning new evidence that would show up the Committee inquiry for the farce which it really was. “Boris Johnson’s ‘bombshell’ that will ‘exonerate him from Partygate’,” The Telegraph said. “Bullish Boris up for the fight,” the Mail shouted.
Over the course of the afternoon, it slowly became clear what this bombshell was: nothing at all.
Johnson’s account of the parties in Downing Street during the Covid restrictions was tenuous and absurd. He insisted that all the events were essential for work purposes because he had to maintain staff morale. He claimed they were not parties, even though they involved no work, lots of socialising, plentiful alcohol and sometimes ended early in the morning. He mangled himself into impossibly contorted positions stressing the exceptions on guidance on social distancing.
It was gaslighting on a national scale. Everyone could remember what the rules were. They could remember how strenuously those rules were explained to them, because it was Johnson who did it, night after night from his Covid press conference lectern. And they could see, quite clearly, that none of these events met those requirements.
The inquiry is about whether Johnson misled the Commons, either purposefully or recklessly. It’s about whether he said things which were wrong, how quickly he corrected them, and what he did to ascertain whether they were true. And that was where he came completely unstuck.
On 1 December 2021, he told the Commons: “All guidance was followed completely in No 10.” A few days later, he said: “I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that all guidance was followed completely.”
One of the key priorities of the Committee was to find out the basis upon which he said that. Of all the MPs questioning him, it was Alberto Costa, an innocuous, mild-mannered Conservative with no great record in rebellions or Parliamentary speeches, who did the most damage. He was like a quiet sorrowful assassin, seemingly deeply saddened by what he was doing, but proceeding regardless, each question more dangerous and forensic than the last. And under that questioning, the former prime minister wilted.
Did Johnson seek assurances about the legality of the gatherings from any of the Government lawyers available to him, or from the Attorney General, or from anyone in government legal services? No, he answered. Did he seek assurances from anyone in the senior civil service, the permanent secretaries or heads of department who might have some understanding of the rules and guidance? Also no.
So who did he seek guidance from? And that was where Johnson’s supposed bombshell came in. It was from his two directors of communication: James Slack and Jack Doyle. It wasn’t really guidance at all, in any meaningful sense. It was just the lines-to-take, the statements put out by the press team to handle media responses.
Not only that, but even these figures didn’t seem convinced by the idea that the guidance had been followed. “I’m struggling to come up with a way this one is in the rules,” Doyle said in a conversation with a No 10 official on 25 January last year.
“Some might see your reliance on the repeated assurances you received as a deflection mechanism to prevent having to answer questions about your knowledge of these gatherings,” Costa said, the knife now firmly embedded in Johnson’s chest. “Would that not be a fair assessment?” Johnson sputtered and raged.
Harriet Harman, chair of the committee, then zeroed in on the former prime minister. “I was in the House when these assurances were given,” she said. “We took them to be serious assurances. Would you not expect us to be a bit dismayed to hear it was not from senior civil servants, it was from political appointees? That they themselves had doubts about it? That it only covered one gathering and it didn’t cover the other three? And also you were there at the time, so it’s a bit hard to understand what the nature of an assurance is when you were there and saw it with your own eyes?”
Johnson tried desperately to intervene. His lawyers perched ever further on the edge of their seats, furrowing their brows. But it was clear that the fight was over. Never had an emperor worn fewer clothes than those upon him this afternoon.