Boris Johnson Boris Johnson. Photo: Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The former prime minister looked like a chocolate-covered toddler denying any knowledge about missing biscuits, writes John Westmoreland

Asking Boris Johnson whether he deliberately mislead parliament was always a no-brainer. Johnson has built his entire political persona around being a larger-than-life charlatan who can get away with breaking the rules, sticking two fingers up at his critics and delighting the right wing media with his many bizarre, and, largely tasteless antics. This time round, however, the ‘slippery piglet’ looks like he might be toast.

The parliamentary committee investigating whether Johnson deliberately lied to the Commons might prove to be Johnson’s Waterloo. If he is judged to have deliberately misled parliament – a polite way of saying ‘told a pack of lies’ – he will be suspended from parliament, likely triggering a by election which would mean him standing down as an MP. Although the committee has a majority of Conservatives it has the job of rescuing the tainted image of Westminster politics and is unlikely to allow Johnson much room for manoeuvre.

The stakes are high for both Johnson and the Tories, with many in his party seeing him as the only person possible for rescuing them from electoral defeat.

Partygate fines

A series of parties in Downing Street during lockdown in 2020 resulted in the Metropolitan police issuing a total of 126 fixed penalty notices. Johnson, his wife Carrie, and his then Chancellor Rishi Sunak were fined for attending his birthday party. Then there were leaving-dos for special advisers and civil servants that the Met judged to have broken the government’s own lockdown restrictions. In total 53 men and 75 women received fines for partying at a time when the rest of us were locked down and prevented from visiting dying and sick relatives.

The weight of this evidence alone should be enough to bury Johnson while exposing him for the charlatan he is. However, Johnson and his backers are determined to tough it out. After the hearing it is evident that his legal advice has been to deflect questions with a mask of manufactured sincerity, naivety and victimhood. 

‘Flimsy’ claims

The evidence made for delightful viewing. Johnson’s defence has already been labelled ‘flimsy’ by the committee chair, Harriet Harman.

Johnson’s opening statements to the committee were intended to show a hard-working and beleaguered leader having to work around the strictures of lockdown restrictions. This attempt to kill off the image of Downing Street partying and breaking the rules that the rest of us were forced to observe was laughable. Every time Johnson blasted the evidence of him partying as ‘complete nonsense’ MPs present couldn’t help but smile.

The key elements of Johnson’s defence are based on the claim that the parties were in fact ‘essential workplace events’. This claim is designed to deny the charge that Johnson and his backers made a deliberate choice to break the rules. Deliberate choice was certainly in evidence in the party invitations that asked party goers to ‘bring your own booze’.

Johnson’s claim that these events were not made with his involvement is pretty ridiculous. If he just turned up briefly to ‘say a few words’ he had a duty to insist that the lockdown restrictions were enforced. MPs homed in on this obvious flaw in his argument, and Johnson squirmed in a variety of ways. He blamed the unenforceable nature of lockdown restrictions by saying that ‘it was impossible to put an electric fence around members of staff’. What nurses and doctors, sweating under layers of PPE, made of these grotesque claims we can only guess.

Blame the advisers

Johnson went on to claim that his statements to parliament were taken after ‘advice’ that the parties were in fact not parties, and no rules had been broken, despite the clear evidence that the Met saw it differently. However, when asked about who had given him this advice it turned out it was the advice of people who were complicit in the rule breaking. The advisers were paid to tell Johnson what he wanted to hear: that nasty people say things about him that are completely untrue.

Johnson said: ‘I asked Jack Doyle and James Slack whether rules had been broken and they said no. And the reason I asked them and not an official or a lawyer is that they had been there so they would know.’

Questioning Johnson looked a little bit like asking a chocolate-covered toddler what happened to the biscuits.

 Tory MP Bernard Jenkin told Johnson there was no doubt that he would know the importance of taking proper advice before addressing parliament: ‘I put it to you, Mr Johnson, that you [deliberately] did not take proper advice.’

Johnson replied: ‘This is complete nonsense, I mean, complete nonsense. I asked the relevant people [who were there]. They were senior people. They had been working very hard.’

Someone made me eat the biscuits!

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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