Johnson’s response to the findings of the Privileges Committee could have been written by a not-too-inventive AI. There was no novel defence or creative turn of phrase, but a flat-footed fulmination against the ‘kangaroo court’ and its ‘hit job’ on his political career. It may be that on this occasion, he was genuinely caught off-guard, expecting a condemnation but not an excoriation. His appearance outside of his house the following day brought to mind an ogre roused from its lair. A shambolic, hunchbacked figure before the glare of the cameras, you were left half-expecting him to growl his frustrations to the press pack, denouncing his critics live.
The irony is that this is the one instance where his railings against the political establishment are, on one level, legitimate. Originally headed by Chris Bryant, who recused himself for his very public – and all too justified – criticisms of Johnson’s premiership, his replacement was Harriet Harman, a Labour grandee who had criticised Johnson and his handling of the pandemic in much the same way. Harman, much like the rest of the committee, was not a fair or impartial arbiter, but a political animal who brought personal and ideological baggage into the hearings.
Of course, this is the price that you pay for Parliament being inviolate by the courts. If politicians are to be held accountable for their actions before Parliament, it is going to be by their peers. And with the Privileges Committee required to be headed by a member of the opposition party, there were few MPs available who hadn’t denounced Johnson’s premiership. Indeed, if you couldn’t pick the ones who had briefed against him, you would be reduced to those who had briefed for him. The Committee could have been chaired by Nadine Dorries, with her desire for Johnson’s approbation dripping from every question, or by Jacob Rees-Mogg, with his languor matching his supine attitude.
With this in mind, there were few other routes to go. Considered in its entirety, the committee was hardly stacked against Johnson. Four of the seven members were Conservative MPs, two Labour, and one from the SNP; and of the four Tory members, two – Sir Bernard Jenkin and Andrew Carter – were fellow travellers with Johnson’s Brexit cult. Perhaps Harman, as I suggested at the time, should still have recused herself. While the Committee would have been diminished by her absence, particularly missing confident questioning of Johnson, another Labour lawyer with a lower public profile, and with less obvious antagonism and longstanding hostility to Johnson could have been found on the backbenches. But given that Johnson would have delivered the same diatribe against any chairman and committee who found against him, no matter its composition, little would have changed in substance.
None of this really matters though. First, for the reason that Johnson doesn’t matter – at least for the moment. Even before Johnson was told that he was to be cast out of the House for at least ten days, the nation had already made its mind up. He has been – finally – exposed as the lying, philandering charlatan he has always been. It is Johnson’s near-irrelevance now that made it possible for the Committee to rule so decisively against him. If he retained any political heft, setting him adrift for ten – let alone twenty – days could have come with political consequences, with the public stirred to support their once and perhaps future champion. Instead, his departure was greeted with a shrug and a ‘good riddance’.
We saw the first glimpse of this irrelevance when he tried to stoke a rebellion against Sunak’s Windsor Protocol, which nixed Johnson’s (international law breaking) Northern Ireland protocol. Instead of the ERG and the DUP massing behind him as he urged them to ‘think carefully’ about the deal, Johnson was isolated. Former hardliner after former hardliner – including the Brexit ‘hard man’ himself – Steve Baker, came out in favour of the deal, leaving Johnson gazing from the sidelines. Reality had finally caught up with his deceit. Faced with an economy spiralling downwards, inflation spiralling upwards, and a war of attrition being fought on European soil, Johnson found that there was a public with no reserves of gullibility left for more lies about Brexit’s ‘sunlit uplands’.
This brings us to the second reason that the composition of the Committee doesn’t matter – because its decision is fair. Even before its decision was reached, Johnson and his handling of the pandemic had been judged in the court of public opinion, and found wanting. The whole country knew he was guilty, and even if he wasn’t given enough time to respond to the latest accusations of rule-breaking at Chequers, where he hosted his wider family illegally during lockdown, his response wouldn’t have made a difference. This time, seeing and hearing evidence about Johnson’s behaviour was enough. Finding that he had not intentionally misled the Commons and then refused to correct the record would have been absurd.
Refusing to sanction Johnson by suspending him for fewer than ten days would have made a farce of the process. The number of genuine rules binding the conduct of prime ministers and ministers in the parliamentary chamber is minuscule; perhaps reducible to a single maxim: do not intentionally lie to the House. This is what Johnson knowingly did, and almost certainly something he has done before. But this time, he was caught.
For the moment, the Committee has excised Johnson from the body politic, a malignant growth that had to be removed, even if it will recur. The question is whether his absence will begin the healing of the British state, or whether something more noxious will come to fill the void.