For a compelling three and a half hours last week, former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced his parliamentary inquisitors. The issue focused on the possibility that Johnson had deliberately misled the House of Commons over whether COVID-19 rules had been followed at 10 Downing Street during the lockdown era. He had told the Commons that no rules or guidance were broken. The police, however, issued 126 fixed penalty notices regarding lockdown events in and around the prime minister’s residence. The hangover of Johnson’s so-called partygate scandal is a long and painful one.
Johnson knew what was on the line – his future political career and personal credibility. He even had a haircut ahead of the hearing. He adopted his uber-serious tone, mostly respectful to the committee but on occasions riled by the questioning. If the Commons Select Committee of Privileges finds him guilty and imposes a 10-day suspension or more, this could lead to a by-election and end Johnson’s parliamentary career. Although it may just come to Johnson being forced to make an apology to Parliament – a humiliation in itself. Johnson has always embraced theater and drama. He is a master of political chicanery. But here, he was not in control; he was at the mercy of the others. Rishi Sunak’s team timed a major vote on a key part of the revised Northern Ireland protocol, the Windsor Framework, right in the middle of Johnson’s session. The protocol was a disastrous part of Johnson’s “oven-ready” Brexit deal that, through patient diplomacy, Sunak and his team have calmly renegotiated with the EU.
The stage management was media heaven. Barely had Johnson worked up a head of steam than he had to exit the inquisition to go and vote in a losing cause that mattered to him personally. Johnson was being hit from all sides. The ex-PM had become the face of a reckless past; the disastrous Tory psychodrama he oversaw. Contrast that with Sunak. The new prime minister was boosted by all this, as he exuded ever more calm and responsibility. His image was of the new hard-working captain at the tiller. The good ship Britannia had a new helmsman who was not sailing it straight at icebergs.
Given the tenor of the questioning, the seven-member privileges committee is likely to recommend some form of censure. It is examining if Johnson misled Parliament and if this was “inadvertent, reckless or intentional.” Johnson insisted that lockdown leaving dos were “essential for work purposes.” At first glance, this might appear trivial. But ordinary Britons remember what it was like. Millions of working people across the country stuck to the rules, not even getting to say goodbye to loved ones on their deathbeds. Johnson, to many, stinks of entitled privilege – a man to whom the rules never applied. This time, he set the rules. He imposed a strict lockdown on the entire country but, where he worked, the rules did not seem to count.
The committee also did not look impressed. Sir Bernard Jenkin, a senior Conservative committee member, pushed back at Johnson. “The guidance does not say you can have a thank you party and as many people in the room as you like,” he said. These parties were necessary in Johnson’s world, with cheese and wine an integral part. He could not explain why his wife, Carrie, their son and his interior designer, Lulu Lytle, were at his birthday celebration in the Cabinet Room in May 2020. This hardly looked like a necessity. Cabinet Secretary Simon Case made clear in his evidence that he never told the PM that the rules and guidance had been followed at all times. This contradicted Johnson’s claims. Meanwhile, Johnson could only find 21 fellow Tory Brexiteers to vote against the Windsor Framework, even if this did include fellow former Prime Minister Liz Truss. The protocol passed by 515 votes to 29. On an issue of such supreme importance to the Brexiteer wing of the party, this was barely a revolt.
All in all, it was a bad week for Brexiteers and the far right of the Conservative Party. Neither Johnson nor Brexit have quite the allure of a few years ago. The country’s political world wants to move on from both. To the extent that Johnson is the most high-profile flag-waver for the hardcore Brexiteer crowd, this was a huge blow to his prestige. The man who once referred to himself as “big dog” was left whimpering on the sidelines. The country has grown tired of the Brexiteers blaming everything and everyone but themselves. Fault always lies elsewhere. Johnson is the epitome of this and he now finds himself left with only die-hard loyalists proclaiming eternal fealty, attached to him like fossilized barnacles. Last week may have brought the curtain down on Johnson’s mercurial political career. It would be wrong to write him off totally. He still enjoys a cult-like following. But his antics have worn out. The recent revelation that he wanted to award his own father a knighthood was a poignant reminder of his stunning lack of judgment and self-awareness.
British politics may be less colorful if this is the final act of Johnson’s political career, but it might be somewhat more professional and effective. Sunak must have been purring. The crucial vote on Northern Ireland passed with ease, meaning there was no need to bank on Labour’s support. His calm diplomacy has achieved what most agree is a vastly improved arrangement. Relations with the EU have improved drastically, including with France. Sunak and President Emmanuel Macron this month held the first bilateral Anglo-French summit since 2018, with the media touting the two leaders’ relationship as “Le Bromance.” The meeting led to the signing of a deal on handling the flow of immigrants across the English Channel. Gone are the days – for now at least – of bitter British fusillades of anti-EU bile being launched on an almost daily basis. Sunak is basically saying that the grown-ups are back in charge.
The prime minister’s standing is strengthened and his main rival is flailing. The question of who leads the Conservatives into the next general election may have been answered, even if the local elections in May prove to be perilous. For the first time in months, the Labour Party is out of its comfort zone. Yes, it is well ahead in the polls, but what appeared to be a landslide in the offing may actually become a proper electoral contest. Sunak still has his challenges. Inflation is going up, taxation is at record levels, industrial unrest is rampant and living standards are falling. But the signs are that Britain is ready to return to the more sober echelons of international politics.