Not since Johnny Depp took office Amber heard has been looking forward to a courtroom drama for so long.
The Captain Jack Sparrow of British politics, buccaneer and charming villain Boris Johnsonin the dock in front of his colleagues, fighting not only to clear his name, but also to save his career.
If politics is showbiz for ugly people then this was pure Westminster box office. Ostensibly about whether or not Johnson knew he was misleading parliament in relation to Partygate, yesterday’s hearing was actually about so much more.
It was about the whole psychodrama of the past few yearsabout gold wallpaper and Dominic Cummings, about late-night red wine feuds and the Red Wall, about feuds and counterfeuds and, of course, about Brexit. His enemies were bullish. Gary Linkerthat beacon of BBC impartiality, darkly tweeted about ‘people constantly telling lies’ shortly after Boris’ defense dossier was released on Tuesday.
The airways were full of experts debate the relative depth of his imminent demise. This was payback.
British politics captain Jack Sparrow, buccaneer and charming villain Boris Johnson, in the dock in front of his colleagues, fighting not only to clear his name but also to save his career
Apart from the Commons privileges committee members – slow, ponderous, fond of their own voices – Mr Johnson seemed nimble as a cat
Unfortunately for them, any hope that the misfortunes of the past few months would have taken the wind out of Johnson’s sails was dashed from the start. He was passionate, persistent, absolutely determined to fight his corner. There was no roar or clouding – indeed, the entire endless four hours were a reminder of just how sharp this man’s mind can be.
Johnson may be lazy at times, but he’s certainly not stupid. Next to the Commons privileges committee members—slow, ponderous, fond of their own voices—he seemed nimble as a cat.
The procedure was due to begin promptly at 2:00 PM, and indeed the panel was properly fitted, file folders and Post-it notes neatly in place. Commission President Harriet Harman, framed by a criminal piece of municipal wall art, wore an impressive statement necklace.
If it wasn’t already clear from her thunderous face how she felt about the defendant, the gargantuan chain link motif left little doubt. Three minutes past the appointed hour, and a determined-looking Johnson took a seat next to his adviser.
“We are not looking at Covid rights and wrongs – but whether to the best of his knowledge Mr Johnson has told the truth to Parliament,” Harman said. Fiercely, and with all the weighty self-importance for which she is so well known in Parliament, she stressed her absolute impartiality (does the lady protest too much?), while Johnson, clearly chewing his inner part, twiddled his thumbs impatiently.
After being told to swear on the Bible (uncommon in committee hearings as far as I know), he was finally invited to make his opening statement.
Turning to the chairman, he wonders if it makes much sense at the moment, as the divisional bell announcing the vote on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal could sound at any moment, forcing the proceedings to be suspended. Harman replied with a robot statement – and so he shrugged off.
If he was nervous, it didn’t show. This wasn’t the hair-raising, ‘um-uhmming’, eye-shifting Johnson forced out by his own party a few months ago, but a smart, refreshed, confident and clearly feisty version, very much on the offensive.
Commission President Harriet Harman, framed by a criminal piece of municipal wall art, wore an impressive statement necklace
After being instructed to swear on the Bible, Mr. Johnson was invited to make his opening statement
He was just getting going when, as predicted, the bell rang and everyone sank, including Johnson.
Essentially, his defense was as follows: the committee found nothing to indicate that he had been warned that the events in No. 10 were illegal; Dominic Cummings is an unreliable witness (“he has every reason to lie”); they had withheld important testimony on which his case rested; the best and fairest course of action now would be for them to publish all the evidence for the public and parliament to judge for themselves’; but they don’t – this is ‘manifestly unfair’.
What the former prime minister told his inquisitors
I’m here to tell you, hand on heart, I have not lied to the House
The committee sometimes seems to say… I shouldn’t take the advice of political advisers or even officials. This is ridiculous. I was the Prime Minister of the UK. I was trying to run the country during a pandemic
If anyone thinks I was partying during the lockdown, they are dead wrong
A number of officials came in to wish me a happy birthday. No one sang, the famous Union Jack cake remained in the Tupperware box, unnoticed by me, and was later discovered and eaten by my private secretaries
If this committee thought I was contemptuous of Parliament… I think that would not only be unfair, I think it would be wrong
He appealed to the common sense of the panel. Why, he asked, if he knew the events in Downing Street were illegal and unauthorized, would he have allowed an official photographer to attend – the resulting photographs are much of the ‘evidence’ against him?
He was just getting going when, as predicted, the bell rang and everyone sank, including Johnson. Ten minutes later he was back, having voted against the Windsor Framework (as he had promised).
If the timing was designed to beat him, it failed. Johnson doubled. Hand to heart, he had not lied; he said what he said in good faith based on what he knew at the time; if he is lying, so are all the officials and advisers who told him that the guidelines were properly adhered to.
There was real passion here – and real anger. There was also an element of surprise: this is clearly a man who really believes he has done his very best to see the nation through the Covid crisis, who has worked as hard as he can for the sake of everyone, and who is almost not quite can believe that he is the one who is now called to defend his actions.
Yet he defended them. Pedantic questions from Sir Bernard Jenkin, so pleased with the cleverness of his line of inquiry that he hardly seemed to pay attention to the answers.
Harman, who occasionally stepped in to berate Johnson for taking too long or straying off topic. Flashes of tightly restrained frustration at having to explain the same point over and over again. Another division bell, and another.
A ridiculous question from MP Yvonne Fovargue about why Carrie and their baby were in the infamous birthday cake photo when colleagues weren’t either. How on earth he resisted the urge to yell ‘Cause I almost died of Covid and we didn’t think I’d ever see another birthday and besides don’t you know No 10 is also the Prime Minister’s home and therefore why would my wife isn’t here, damn it’ I don’t know, but he didn’t know.
Boris Johnson said Dominic Cummings is an unreliable witness (‘he has every reason to lie’)
Pedantic questions from Sir Bernard Jenkin, so pleased with the cleverness of his line of inquiry that he hardly seemed to pay attention to the answers
Why, Johnson asked, if he knew the events in Downing Street were illegal and unauthorized, would he have allowed an official photographer?
Instead, he just plowed on, answering the same questions over and over. It was a spectacle of pedantry and nitpicking, with it becoming increasingly clear that the committee seemed to think that all Johnson should have been doing all day, day in and day out, was patrolling the corridors of No. that people were observing social distancing names.
There were some nice Johnson flowers. On social distancing, “You can’t expect people in an environment like No. 10 to have an electrified fence around them.”
Emphasizing the use of the ‘operative conditional’ – in this case the use of ‘where possible’ – in guidance: he was always a proponent of good grammar.
But in the end it was all a bit farcical. The truth about Boris is that those who love him will forgive him for almost anything, while those who don’t will seize upon the smallest thing to condemn him. And the problem with this whole Partygate thing – and with the Covid investigation in general – is that there are huge gray areas that no committee meeting or anemic MPs will ever really solve.
Whatever mistakes were made, whatever rules were broken, and how justified – and it is justified – the public anger at the lockdown and the heavy-handed way ordinary citizens were treated by the authorities I do not think – based on the evidence of this testimony – that Johnson deliberately or maliciously tried to flaunt the rules.
As so often in life, this is a blunder, not a conspiracy.