Last year, noted philosopher Rebekah Vardy remarked of fellow scholar Coleen Rooney:
Arguing with Coleen is like arguing with a pigeon. You can tell it that you are right and it is wrong but it’s still going to shit in your hair.
This could just as easily be said of former prime minister Boris Johnson. And, if not thinking specifically about the Wagatha Christie trial, I suspect members of the House of Commons committee of privileges are having similar feelings as they investigate whether Johnson misled parliament over whether he knew COVID lockdown rules were being broken in Downing Street during the pandemic.
Attempts to discredit the committee
The fear for those sitting on the committee is that if he can’t convince them that he is right, and they are wrong, he might cast doubt on the whole investigation process. And certainly, he will argue, the public should not trust the findings of all those people with shit in their hair. This is why in advance of his appearance in front of the committee, some of his most ardent supporters were calling it a kangaroo court.
Despite the punchy nature of prior communications between Johnson and the committee, and during much of the hearing itself, there was in fact much that all involved agreed on. They are on the same page about whether there were gatherings during COVID lockdowns. That is, at this point, an unassailable fact. The second point of agreement is that there were multiple breaches of the rules and guidance. The third is that parliament was misled.
However, there was plenty of discord. First, the extent to which parliament was misled. And it will be on this that the committee will ultimately decide whether Johnson should face a sanction and what form that sanction should take.
The two sides also disagree on how obvious it should have been to Johnson that the rules and guidance were being breached, both at gatherings he attended and those that he didn’t.
Third, on whether the committee itself is fair and impartial.
Was parliament misled?
In a word, yes. However, Johnson claims that he misled parliament only inadvertently. That he (now, say it with me) believed that all guidance was followed completely at all times (until he didn’t). The committee (broadly) was either trying to get Johnson to convince them of this, or disprove that he either recklessly or deliberately misled parliament.
The distinction is important. Deliberately misleading parliament is simply lying – which is hard to prove as you effectively need solid evidence to back up the accusation.
Recklessly misleading parliament is a slightly more qualitative assessment of whether the parliamentary record was corrected in good time after a false statement has been made (in short, going into parliament, holding your hands up and saying you were wrong).
Was it obvious that rules and guidance were breached?
For Johnson, no. The crux of his argument was that it’s incredibly hard to maintain social distancing guidelines in the cramped conditions of Number 10. He repeatedly referred to the idea that it was impossible to maintain an invisible electric fence around people (even if he was asking the rest of the public to attempt to do precisely that at the time in daily press conferences).
He also suggested that it was a unique workplace in which his attendance at leaving events was needed to boost morale and that they were therefore essential work meetings. So, in short, to Johnson, it was not obvious that the events in question were contravention of the guidelines.
The committee members were less convinced. Their position can be summarised by a pithy question from Conservative MP Sir Bernard Jenkin when he asked what he would have said if asked at the press conference podium during the daily COVID briefings: “Is it in the guidelines to have unsocially distanced farewell drinks?”
The more surprising element of Johnson’s defence, as highlighted by the BBCs Ione Wells, was that Johnson was not merely arguing that it was not obvious that these gatherings with wine breached the guidance, but that they were essential.
This is likely to be given short shrift by many of the people who made genuine sacrifices during the pandemic and indeed those who were fined for less.
Was the privileges committee fair?
Yes. And it is worth remembering that the makeup of the committee reflects parliament. So of the seven MPs sitting in the evidence session, four are Johnson’s Conservative colleagues. The spiciest exchanges, in fact, were between Johnson and Jenkin, and Johnson and Alberto Costa, also a Conservative.
However, Johnson seemed intent on implicitly casting doubt on the committee’s fairness. In his opening remarks, for example, he suggested that “everyone knows that there are features of this proceeding that are peculiar” and described tweets by chair Harriet Harman prior to her appointment as “prejudicial”.
When challenged about this and asked whether he agreed with some of his supporters that the privileges committee was a “kangaroo court”, Johnson demurred. But, most worryingly, seemed to only confirm that he would have confidence in the propriety of the proceedings if he was exonerated. What is that saying about pigeons and hair again?
What will happen now?
Given that the committee primarily focused on whether it was obvious that the guidance was not followed and how much assurance Johnson sought over the matter, it seems likely that it will find that Johnson recklessly – but not deliberately – misled parliament.
This will probably be enough to avoid the “nuclear option” of a ten-plus day suspension from parliament, which could result in a by-election that would see Johnson fighting for his parliamentary seat.
The bigger issue for Johnson is how damaging the hearing will be in the court of public opinion. This is important since he pretty clearly still harbours leadership ambitions.
The problem that he will face is that the hearing has provided hours of ready-made political attack material. His hope of being the “king over the water” seems as distant as it has been since his resignation last year.
It was notable that Johnson’s opening statement was interrupted so that he could go and vote against Rishi Sunak’s Northern Ireland deal (alongside 22 Tory rebels and 48 abstainers). I suspect for an increasing number of MPs, and party supporters, the Boris Johnson sideshow is becoming just that: a peripheral and diminishing concern.