He has apologised for misleading Parliament but claims that he did not do so intentionally or recklessly
Representative democracy requires a free press and a well-honed Parliament. A free press investigates and exposes the truth about the shenanigans of government ministers and a well-honed Parliament holds government to account and sanctions those it finds in contempt of its laws.
It was the press and Congress that forced US President Richard Nixon to resign in 1974 over the Watergate cover-up; and it was the press and Parliament working in concert that exposed Boris Johnson as too toxic to be prime minister.
What happened while Boris Johnson was prime minister was that in late 2021 a newspaper published reports of drinks parties at the British prime minister’s official residence at 10 Downing Street in London during the Covid pandemic when strict social distancing was in force in Britain.
Johnson instructed people to stay at home and keep socially distant, but instead of leading by example he and his staff partied in Downing Street while in the rest of the country many died isolated and alone.
The report was picked up in Parliament and Johnson was asked by the leader of the opposition about the alleged parties; it was one law for those who governed and another for those whom they governed who suffered all manner of privations during the pandemic, he taunted Johnson.
Johnson who was more concerned with scoring debate points than telling Parliament the truth, replied in absolute terms. He said he had been assured that the Covid guidance was followed completely at all times.
But the story refused to go away. The problem was that there were official pictures of him attending social gatherings at which those attending, including himself, seemed to be partying with empty and half-empty bottles of wine and spirits clearly visible, suggesting sustained consumption. The prime minister is shown, glass raised in celebration, conspicuously holding court and enjoying himself and entertaining those around him.
In view of the evidence contained in the pictures and payment of a fixed penalty notice for breaching Covid rules, in about May-June last year, after umpteen apologies for misleading parliament over party-gate, the Privileges Committee was asked to investigate whether Johnson lied to Parliament.
In the meantime, a male party manager he had appointed groped some men at the Carlton Club during a conservative Friends of Cyprus event. Johnson’s press office denied he knew that his party manager was an incorrigible groper before he appointed him when in fact he had been warned about his proclivities by a civil servant who blew the whistle on Johnson.
That was the last straw for some sixty members of his government who resigned en masse leaving him with no functioning government and forcing him to resign. Within a couple of years of winning an 80-seat majority it became clear he was unfit to be prime minister because of his tendency to be economical with the truth.
The story-line is a bit back to front and confusing because his resignation as prime minister was brought about by loss of confidence in him as leader of the Conservative party – a purely political matter – whereas the lies he is alleged to have told Parliament engage the rules and conventions of Parliament over and above the lies that forced him to resign.
The Privileges Committee that heard Johnson’s evidence live last week has four government MPs, two Labour and one Scottish National Party member. It is fair to say that the most aggressive and incisive cross examination of Johnson was by members of his own party – they took no prisoners.
Johnson apologised for misleading Parliament but claims that he did not do so intentionally or recklessly, but unwittingly in good faith, in the belief he was telling the truth.
The committee put it to Johnson that it would have been obvious to any reasonable person present at the social gatherings he attended that social distancing was not being observed and that he could not have been given assurances that all guidance was followed about social gatherings he had himself attended.
His reply was that it was not obvious to him that the guidance was not being followed because the social gatherings were necessary work events to boost morale and that he was entitled to rely on assurances from his staff.
It was put to him that he did not tell Parliament that work-related social gatherings had taken place during which social distancing was not possible, or that the gatherings were necessary to keep up morale.
It does not take great forensic skill to figure out at once that there are serious problems with the veracity of Johnson’s account in cross-examination.
The rules were broken because the police issued fixed penalty notices that were not challenged. Also, the pictures show that Johnson attended a number of gatherings himself so he knew first-hand what actually happened when he was present, so the reference to being assured was disingenuous.
The assurances he was given, if any, could only have been about social gatherings he did not attend so he must have lied about the social gatherings he did attend. When first asked in Parliament about parties, he did not confess and dodged: yes I did attend social gatherings but they were necessary work related events within the guidance.
Johnson was forced to concede that he failed to inform Parliament that the assurances he had received were not from the government’s lawyers or impartial civil servants but from his special political advisers (Spags) – a classic case of not telling the whole truth.
At the end of his three-hour grilling, he told the Committee that only if they exonerate him would he regard the outcome as fair, which was a very unwise thing to say to a committee you are trying to persuade of such an absurd defence as the one he put forward.
During the course of the hearing, the Committee rose to vote on Rishi Sunak’s Windsor Framework that significantly improves the Northern Ireland Protocol Johnson inflicted on Ulster and GB to get Brexit done. Johnson voted with the Democratic Unionists against his party and his leader. Sunak won the vote 515 to 29. Johnson is finished.
Alper Ali Riza is a king’s counsel in the UK and a retired part-time judge