Boris Johnson faces a four-hour grilling over Partygate. He’s going to hate every minute
It’s popcorn at the ready in Westminster as former PM faces off against MPs.
LONDON — It will be an evidence session like no other.
After weeks of anticipation, former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be hauled before the House of Commons privileges committee on Wednesday afternoon to account for his actions over the so-called Partygate scandal.
The cross-party group of MPs, chaired by Labour grandee Harriet Harman, is examining whether he knowingly misled parliament about COVID rule-breaking parties in Downing Street during the pandemic.
For Johnson, the stakes are high.
In an initial update earlier this month, the committee suggested he may have misled parliament multiple times. If that assessment is confirmed, Johnson could face suspension from the House of Commons — and perhaps a difficult by-election to defend his seat.
In short, Johnson’s stuttering political career hangs in the balance. Four hours have been set aside for the hearing, and every moment will be broadcast live on TV.
Wednesday’s showdown will be compulsory viewing not just for its decisive role in Johnson’s future — but also the spectacle of the perpetually elusive tearaway finally being held to account for his actions.
It’s hard to imagine a greater mismatch between the performer — a politician who deals in jokes, grand gestures and bluster — and the platform, which normally demands sobriety and probity.
“He was never terribly good at the parliamentary side,” sighed one former MP, who worked closely with Johnson. “Being a member of parliament isn’t like being ‘world king.’ You do have to do some boring stuff.”
Johnson’s undoubted strengths as a politician are well-known, if increasingly hidden from view since he was deposed as prime minister last year.
“He is absolutely brilliant at addressing a mass rally and making Conservatives feel good about being Conservative,” Johnson’s biographer, Andrew Gimson, said.
This skillset was most conspicuous during Johnson’s time as London mayor, when he would torment then-Prime Minister David Cameron with his over-the-top speeches at the Conservative Party conference, designed to fuel speculation that he could one day take over as leader.
As prime minister, Johnson drew strength from the adversarial atmosphere of the Commons, riling up backbench MPs and headline-writers alike with provocative turns of phrase.
“Being good in a crisis, patriotic and having a lot of personality were typically brand strengths for Boris Johnson as prime minister,” said the pollster Keiran Pedley, director of politics at Ipsos. He noted how Johnson’s “personal brand” weakened from late 2021 — around the time the Partygate scandal broke — after which the public came to see him as increasingly untrustworthy.
But the flip side of Johnson’s knack for crowd-pleasing high jinks is a famous resistance to staying on-message, and a lack of attention to detail — basic requirements for anyone giving evidence to a select committee, where the questioning can be both arduous and forensic.
“I imagine he will find this kind of occasion pretty tiresome,” said Gimson. “He’s always thought the rules were there to be broken, so he could never really develop a convincing defense … He’ll feel his enemies are using these incredibly trivial things to try and bring him down.”
This view is certainly borne out by loyal lieutenants such as former Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has already described the committee as a “kangaroo court.”
Johnson will nonetheless be well-briefed, having engaged the services of heavyweight barrister David Pannick to compile a dossier in his own defense, admitting that he misled parliament but stressing that he never intended to do so.
Whether the former PM will be able to stick to the script during a marathon four-hour evidence session is another matter, given the natural impatience which often slips out when asked to justify himself or answer questions he sees as irrelevant.
One Conservative MP and longtime Johnson-skeptic predicted: “I suspect the dossier will be more convincing than the performance.”
The match-up between star witness and chief prosecutor is also a fascinating one. Harman, a barrister by training, is known for her no-nonsense style and her long history of campaigning for women’s rights since she first became an MP in 1982.
Chairing the committee is Harman’s last big job before she stands down at the next election, and a task one ally said she has found “tougher than she expected.” The pressure will be on for her to give the political escape artist once described by Cameron as a “greased piglet” as little wriggle room as possible.
Johnson, after all, is at his most comfortable when taking aim at the enemy — be it Keir Starmer, nebulous “doom-mongers,” or the EU. His allies are already claiming Harman and other committee members are hopelessly biased against him.
While Wednesday’s hearing will provide Westminster with an afternoon of compulsive viewing, Johnson’s true judgment day lies further ahead.
The committee will only deliver its verdict, and recommended sanction, a few weeks later — a moment of truth for Conservative MPs eager to know the extent of the fresh psychodrama about to hit the party.
The general expectation among MPs is that Johnson could accept a suspension of fewer than 10 days from parliament without kicking up much fuss.
A more severe sentence would hit a legal threshold which could trigger a by-election in Johnson’s west London seat, threatening his political future. That in turn would spark fierce resistance among Johnson’s allies in parliament, and put Rishi Sunak on the spot.
Sunak has already indicated any vote on his former boss’ future would not be whipped by party enforcers, as is the norm for such matters — but he would nevertheless come under huge internal pressure from some quarters to order Tory MPs to save Johnson’s skin.
Such a row threatens to overtake the sense of quiet, orderly competence Sunak has sought to project since becoming PM.
“What is helping us [at the moment] is the sense of calm,” one anti-Johnson Tory MP said. “My fear is that with Boris, that will disappear.”
If Sunak backs the system over his old boss, he risks “party management Armageddon,” warned another MP, who served as a minister under Johnson.
For Johnson, that might yet prove the ideal outcome.
Dan Bloom and Annabelle Dickson contributed reporting.