Boris Johnson has been humiliated on two fronts - GulfToday

Boris Johnson has been humiliated on two fronts

John Rentoul


Chief Political Commentator, The Independent; visiting professor, King's College, London.

Chief Political Commentator, The Independent; visiting professor, King's College, London.


Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson spent three hours giving evidence to the Committee of Privileges, trying to keep the flame of a comeback alight – including when he had to interrupt said testimony to lose a humiliating vote against the current prime minister. At the end of the session, there is little doubt that he will still believes it is possible. That is a delusion. There were plenty of uncomfortable moments. Yvonne Fovargue, Harriet Harman’s Labour colleague on the committee, asked why his director of communications was concerned about the “optics” of one of the parties that Johnson insisted was not a party – in other words, what it might look like to the public. “If he wasn’t concerned about the rules, why was he concerned about the optics?” Johnson said he couldn’t say. He tried to sound disapproving when he said, “It was regular I’m afraid for people to drink on Fridays,” as if he as prime minister had no responsibility for the assumptions about alcohol at work in No 10.

And he admitted that he had “misremembered” his briefing and told the Commons that the “guidance” had been followed rather than the “rules”, but said he believed it anyway. That will probably be what saves him from a serious penalty from the committee. All the to and fro about what guidance should have meant was beside the point; the committee has to show Johnson knew it was being broken, which means seeing inside his mind. But the hearing was painful. Today was as good a day for Rishi Sunak as it was a bad one for Johnson, who remains mired in the inquiry, reminding millions of former Tory voters that they think he failed to abide by the lockdown rules he laid down for them.

It turned out that Sunak knew what he was doing with the vote on his Northern Ireland Brexit deal. Johnson and Liz Truss both joined the rebellion, which was a flop. Only 22 Conservative MPs voted against the government. Two former prime ministers; three former leaders of the party, including Iain Duncan Smith; and not many followers. Even taking abstentions into account, Sunak would have won the vote even if all the opposition parties had voted against it – so he avoided the embarrassment of “relying on the Labour Party” to get the deal through.

It was not a perfect triumph, because the Democratic Unionist Party voted against the government too, and it is not until the DUP agrees to restart the devolved administration of Northern Ireland that the problem can be said to be solved. But the collapse of the European Research Group, the nay-saying faction of Tory MPs, is a huge gain for the prime minister.

Johnson and Truss diminished themselves by imagining that this would be a moment when the Conservative Party would turn against Sunak. Specifically, they were diminished because they have no alternative to the agreement that Sunak negotiated. Johnson said that the protocol that he negotiated to secure Britain’s departure from the EU was so bad that it had to be renegotiated. When Sunak renegotiated it, securing far more from the EU than seemed remotely possible when Johnson was prime minister, Johnson looked foolish voting against it. He complained that the new deal still keeps Northern Ireland in the EU legal orbit, but he was unable to explain how this could be avoided, except by ripping up the protocol and replacing it with nothing.

As for Sunak, he is the competent ruler of all he surveys. He won the vote, a tribute to what Tory MPs called the “professionalism and courtesy” of Simon Hart, his chief whip. The publication of his tax returns while Johnson was giving evidence was a cynical piece of news management, helping to play down the British people’s reminder of the fact that the prime minister is the richest since Lord Derby in 1868.

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