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Monday, February 26, 2024
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Johnson, the guilty quitter

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I’VE LONG given up on expecting people to familiarise themselves with evidence before reaching a conclusion. As Carl Jung said, thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge. Thus it is with the House of Commons Committee of Privileges report into Boris Johnson’s alleged lying to Parliament.

There’s no need to be intimidated by the 108 pages of the report. Much of the material is repeated in triplicate with only minor changes. The six events that form the evidence used to find Johnson guilty of deliberately misleading Parliament follow a very similar pattern so we can go directly to the five judgments made against him.

Firstly, that he deliberately misled the House of Commons when he made statements such as on December 8 2021 that ‘I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken’. The committee found no evidence that anyone ever told Johnson that Covid restrictions were broken or at risk of having been broken. Two successive Downing Street directors of communication assured Johnson that rules were followed in relation to specific incidents. Yet the committee concluded that ‘we think it highly unlikely on the balance of probabilities that Mr Johnson, in the light of his cumulative direct personal experience of these events, and his familiarity with the Rules and Guidance as their most prominent public promoter, could have genuinely believed at the time of his statements to the House that the Rules or Guidance were being complied with’ (paragraph 117).

Such weak reasoning would be laughed out of any court. It ignores the fact that Boris Johnson has a well-established reputation for inattention to detail. It’s hard to think of another Prime Minister more likely not to understand his own rules.

Secondly, Johnson was found to have deliberately misled the committee.  This amount to nothing more than his sticking rigidly to his story of believing he was following his own rules. The committee were disappointed that ‘he declined our invitation to reconsider his assertions that what he said to the house was truthful’, which would have been an admission that he lied to Parliament. Head I win, tails you lose.

Thirdly, Johnson is accused of breaching confidence by leaking the findings of the Committee’s draft report when it was sent to him in confidence for comment. On this count, he is bang to rights but it’s not a matter on which to end an MP’s career.

Fourthly, he is accused of impugning the committee and thereby undermining the democratic process of the House. Johnson has called the committee a ‘kangaroo court’ and with justification; no one would consider any group passing judgment to be fair when the chairman of such a panel (in this case Harriet Harman) had made clear before hearing evidence that she thought the accused was lying. The faux outrage about undermining the democratic process cuts no ice. No body should be beyond criticism and the more the committee press this point, the more their authoritarianism needs to be called out.

Finally, Johnson was found guilty of being complicit in the campaign of abuse and attempted intimidation of the committee. Accusing someone of being complicit of something is a great way to sidestep having to produce any evidence. This is nothing but an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory, calling to mind those accusing Donald (‘peacefully and patriotically protest’) Trump of being complicit in orchestrating the so-called riot of January 6, 2020.

The proposed punishment handed out to Johnson is extraordinarily harsh relative to that for others. For factually incorrect statements to Parliament and offending the committee’s amour propre, he would have received a 90-day suspension from the House of Commons were he still an MP.  Margaret Ferrier, the SNP MP who took a train whilst knowing she had Covid, got sent out for only 30 days. 

But he is guilty on two fronts. Firstly, he approved the Covid restrictions, many of them arbitrary, irrational, unscientific or oppressive (usually several at once). The committee makes a point that Boris told Parliament Covid ‘rules’ were not breached when he should have referred to ‘guidance’; such nitpicking shows that the committee were fully on board with all the Covid restrictions, not even asking if any of the potentially illegal gatherings resulted in new Covid cases (from their silence, one can probably assume they didn’t). But they were Johnson’s restrictions and politics is a dirty business, so if you get hung out to dry on the rules you introduced, don’t expect anyone to shed any tears for you, especially not those for whom Covid lockdowns denied them the right to see their loved ones in care homes or hospital or to attend family funerals.

Not only did Johnson create the Covid restrictions monster that politically destroyed him but he showed himself to be extraordinarily weak when attacked. Kathy Gyngell has noted how Donald Trump is dealing with the law suits being brought against him. Imagine what Trump would do in Johnson’s shoes: he would have relished the opportunity to stand in the House of Commons and call out his accusers; he would have dared every Conservative MP (including Rishi Sunak) to approve the committee’s report, knowing that many party members would be willing to deselect Tory MPs who failed to back him.

But Johnson just quit. He took his ball home and cried ‘unfair’. The truth is that he isn’t really a fighter. He hates the nasty side of politics. He wants to be loved, which is why he liked spending so much taxpayers’ money, didn’t fight the culture wars and was softer on immigration than his fan club could ever admit. Boris could have been Prime Minister when David Cameron stood down if he hadn’t pulled out of the race when Michael Gove declared him unsuitable for the job. Boris had the chance to become Prime Minister again when Liz Truss resigned but he chose not to allow his put his name forward, when he would have certainly trounced Rishi Sunak in a ballot of party members. Trump would see that as the behaviour of a loser – harsh, but fair.

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Vlod Barchuk
Vlod Barchuk
Vlod Barchuk is a former accountant, former Tory councillor and current chairman of Ealing Central and Acton Conservative Party Association.

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