It wasn’t quite the Old Bailey. But it wasn’t far off. A former prime minister on trial for what was left of his reputation. A guilty verdict from the privileges committee and a suspension from parliament could effectively end Boris Johnson’s political career. Even if it didn’t take the nuclear option of a 10-day sentence that would trigger a recall petition. His legs would be cut off: no need then to shoot him as well.
He would leave the stage unmourned. The prime minister who blew an 80 seat majority and an almost guaranteed three terms in office. Now sent to roam the world as a washed-up end of the pier entertainer, giving the same over-priced speech to people he doesn’t care about and will never see again. A pointless existence for a narcissist hooked on constant attention.
Johnson had come prepared. Flanked by Lord Pannick, one of the UK’s most expensive barristers, and three of his gofers. But they could only sit and watch as their defendant crashed and burned. You can coach The Convict to within an inch of his life, but you can’t get him to perform to order. This was Boris at his worst. Angry, fidgety, arrogant. His contempt for the committee evident in almost every sentence. Then it was probably always going to be this way. Johnson seldom looks good under pressure.
This was a trial about honesty. Never Boris’s strong point. For a while the public indulged his lies. They were so brazen, so shameless that they made people laugh. Relief even. No one really thought he had a simple deal that would Get Brexit Done, but they chose to collude with the lie because it was simpler. They were sick to death with politicians fighting like rats in a sack over the EU while the country burned. They needed to believe.
But during Covid, Johnson crossed a line. While the rest of us obeyed the rules and guidelines, Johnson felt free to interpret them more loosely. And then lie about it. Always the lies. Though it wasn’t the lies alone that did for him. It was the hypocrisy also. People died alone while he and the rest of Number 10 partied. Always the lies, though. So it was no surprise that Boris doubled down. A committee session about lying to parliament was dominated by Boris again lying to parliament. At times it felt almost meta. Lying about lying about lying.
The committee chair Harriet Harman got proceedings under way by talking about the parameters of the session. This wasn’t about whether the parties had actually taken place or not. That had long since been established. What was at stake was whether Johnson had deliberately or recklessly misled parliament about them. Boris fiddled with his papers and appeared bored. This was all about him, not Harman. It should be him setting the agenda. His legal team looked on helplessly, banking the money. Not the best of starts.
Then Johnson took the oath on the King James bible. Amazingly the bible survived contact with Boris’s hand. I guess it must have come across many liars in its time. That done, Johnson went off on a rant, only to be interrupted by a division bell reminding him to vote against Rishi Sunak’s Windsor Framework. On his return, he mounted the first outline of his defence. He was too stupid to lie. If he had a fault it was that he was too honest. There again he might also be too stupid to stop himself lying. After all, if everyone knows you’re lying then no one is being misled.
Boris warmed to his stupidity theme. He genuinely believed that no rules had been broken because no one had told him any rules were being broken. He wasn’t responsible for his own actions. Besides which, he had no idea what the rules and guidance were because he hadn’t yet worked out who had been prime minister at the time.
Still, he wasn’t finished. You couldn’t trust the Sue Gray report as it was clearly biased. Harman gently pointed out that the committee wouldn’t be relying on Sue Gray. Johnson looked unconvinced and started slagging off the committee for being a kangaroo court. How to make friends. The ever diminishing group of Tory MPs, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Fabricant and Scott Benton, that remain loyal to the Boris flame and were sitting near the back, nodded in agreement. It was disgraceful that Johnson should be tried by a committee that had decided on its verdict already. Especially when he was clearly innocent.
Then Harman handed over to the rest of the committee; Bernard Jenkin, Yvonne Fovargue, Allan Dorans, Andy Carter, Alberto Costa and Charles Walker. They talked Johnson gently through some of the parties which he had attended. Though not, for some reason, the Abba party that took place in his own flat.
Now things became positively surreal. Because it turned out that when Boris had imposed the Covid rules and guidelines, he had never intended anyone to obey them fully. Least of all his own staff. They had done their best, but everyone needed a break some time. Though obviously not anyone working in the NHS. But Downing Street was a special case. Johnson now introduced the concept of ‘personal drift’. You started off meaning to socially distance but somehow mysteriously ended up throwing up in bins, falling into flowerbeds or having sex with random strangers. This was all apparently totally normal.
Nor did it ever occur to Boris that any of the parties that weren’t parties might have been against the rules because whenever he attended them he was afflicted by sudden onset deafness. And blindness. He literally did not see anything that caused him the slightest misgivings. What was wrong with inviting 200 people to a party? Or having them crammed indoors? This was just a normal work event in Downing Street. And people had been offered hand sanitiser. The caring, sharing Bozza.
OK, said the committee. So why didn’t you correct the record when you realised the rules had been broken to the tune of 126 Fixed Penalty Notices? Now Boris lost it. Because, he said angrily, no rules had been broken. Because none of his advisers had told him the rules had been broken and because he was too stupid to come to that conclusion on his own. He forgot to mention that his advisers had been hand-picked by him to accommodate his untruths. But by now he was rambling incoherently.
Eventually, Harman brought the session to a close. She hoped Johnson would think he had a fair trial. Some chance. He would do if they found him innocent, Johnson replied. Pannick rolled his eyes. A sure giveaway. He had long since known which way this one was going. Then it had always been a long shot. Always is with sociopaths. But hey. One of the upsides of being a top defence lawyer is that you’re never short of mugs praying on a miracle.