UK's Boris Johnson on backfoot; 'second innings' unlikely

There is a range of opinions within Britain about the quality of democracy in the country today, but Johnson, a former prime minister, being grilled by the committee for three hours live on television was a significant moment not only in UK politics but also for those observing the developments in other democratic countries

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Mon 27 Mar 2023, 8:09 PM

Never say never. The phrase gained currency after it first appeared in The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, but particularly resonates in electoral politics. Obscure politicians go on to assume the centrestage; some manage to make a comeback; others are relegated to the margins. In other words, unforeseen events and the game of numbers have long sprung surprises in democratic countries. Anything can happen and you rule out leaders, political formations and situations at your peril. Many recalled the phrase last week when Boris Johnson was back in the headlines while appearing before an influential committee of the House of Commons.

The prospect of Johnson returning as Conservative leader and prime minister before the next general election has been one of the major themes in Westminster since he resigned ingloriously in September. For one who studied Classics at Oxford, he himself added grist to the mill in his last address outside Number 10, when he compared himself to Cincinnatus, the fifth century BC Roman politician, who turned to farming after leaving Rome, but then returned to power. Known for colourful wordplay, the former journalist and columnist had said: “Let me say that I am now like one of those booster rockets that has fulfilled its function and I will now be gently re-entering the atmosphere and splashing down invisibly in some remote and obscure corner of the Pacific. And like Cincinnatus I am returning to my plough.”

Those with a sense of history were quick to discern a desire to return to Downing Street after a while, but Johnson had already lost much steam and support by the time Liz Truss resigned in October, also ingloriously, making it easy for Rishi Sunak to take over.

Johnson’s appearance before the Committee of Privileges did not exactly raise his stock. The committee, including Conservative MPs, has been investigating whether Johnson as prime minister lied to parliament when he repeatedly told MPs that all rules and guidance had been followed in Downing Street during Covid lockdowns. He insisted he did not intentionally mislead parliament over what has been dubbed ‘Partygate’. He began the marathon three-hour session with a Bible in his hand, and swore: “Hand on heart, I did not lie to the House”, but admitted social distancing had not been ‘perfect’ at gatherings in his office during the lockdowns. He called them ‘essential’ work events, which he claimed were allowed, and insisted that the guidelines — as he understood them — were followed at all times.

Committee members were clinical in their questioning, as they ‘sliced and diced’ his version of events. Its verdict is awaited but there is already talk that its final report will not enthuse Johnson. There are implications for his position as MP if the committee concludes that he intentionally and recklessly did not tell the truth to parliament.

If the committee decides that Johnson had not only misled parliament but also that what he said had an impact on its ‘proper functioning’, it could recommend punishments ranging from asking him to apologise in writing, making him apologise in person in the House of Commons, or suspend him. A suspension from parliament for 10 sitting days or more would trigger a recall petition by voters in his constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and if 10 per cent of registered voters sign the petition, his seat would be declared vacant and a by-election would be called. There is already pushback from Johnson’s allies, with one alleging that the committee is a politically motivated ‘kangaroo court’. On his part, Johnson distanced himself from such claims, insisting that his deposition reflected how seriously he took the work of the committee.

There is a range of opinions within Britain about the quality of democracy in the country today, but Johnson, a former prime minister, being grilled by the committee for three hours live on television was a significant moment not only in British politics, but also for those observing the developments in other democratic countries. It is rare in many countries with different democratic cultures to see a leading political figure being subjected to such close scrutiny, live on television, about past events that may or may not be an issue elsewhere.

The larger picture is that Johnson’s political fate must amount to a masterclass on how not to fritter away a major electoral victory. After leading the Conservative to a large win in the December 2019 election, he was set for a clear five-year term, if not another, but his actions and a series of events curtailed his tenure to less than three years. The once-charismatic Johnson brand has clearly suffered since, and there is less appetite now in his party for another round of his leadership before the next election. He also opposed the Windsor Framework recently reached by Sunak with the European Union to resolve the Northern Ireland imbroglio as part of Brexit arrangements, but found that not many party MPs joined him. This may also be a reflection of a wider fatigue about Brexit and turmoil in Westminster during 2022.

Besides Johnson’s appearance before the committee, there was also a telling moment on BBC’s Question Time the next day. The audience comprising mostly of Tory voters was asked if anyone believed Johnson told the truth to the committee. There was total silence. There was again silence when asked if anyone believed Johnson could make a comeback as prime minister.

The biggest beneficiary of Johnson having to tortuously explain himself before the committee is Sunak, who appears increasingly ensconced in Downing Street, facing hardly any challenge within the party. The Conservative party is widely expected to fare poorly in the May local elections, which is also unlikely to rock Sunak’s boat. But the consensus among pundits and pollsters remains that Sunak will not be able to lead the party to another win in the general election expected to be held in end-2024; Labour continues to be the favourite. Johnson’s Cincinnatus analogy may well remain just that: an analogy of hope. But then, as quirks and quarks in contemporary politics suggest, never say never.

(Prasun Sonwalkar is a senior journalist based in London.)

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