Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.
Boris Johnson’s political career ended on Wednesday, with stuttering and fake politesse.
Seated before a U.K. House of Commons committee poised to rule on whether he lied to parliament about Partygate, Johnson was far from his element. Beneath the ghost of his famous bonhomie and the half-conceived rhetoric, I saw anger segueing to bafflement: A man who has been forgiven all his life, now unforgiven. He should rewatch the original “House of Cards”: nothing lasts forever.
If Johnson once coasted on the times, now he is cursed by them. Britain has a new seriousness and a new PM: In politics, a bookie is followed by a bishop, to borrow the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge’s famous phrase. (I’m not including Liz Truss, who is owed a special category of her own.)
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Johnson may be suspended from parliament if the committee finds against him, and he may then lose his seat. The classicist in him will understand: He is most in danger from his friends. The committee’s Tory questioners were more savage, but they have been more deeply betrayed. He is an embarrassment now. They will throw him overboard for a percentage point. When the committee paused for a vote, he led a rebellion against the government on the Windsor Framework, Rishi Sunak’s solution to Johnson’s own Brexit deal. Only 22 out of 354 Tory MPs followed him. This is how he departs.
The hearing took place in a dull room with expensive furniture that looked cheap and a mad mural of leaves in his eye line. Johnson isn’t in politics for dull rooms: He’s in it to ride his motorbike around Chequers.
Harriet Harman, the Labour MP and Mother of the House, was in the chair wearing black, as precise as Johnson is chaotic, with a necklace that looked like a chain. Was it metaphor? Harman has spent her career supporting female parliamentarians. Then a man who said voting Tory would give wives bigger breasts won an 80-seat majority in 2019. But that was a whole pandemic ago.
Johnson was there to defend himself against the charge that he repeatedly lied to parliament when he said guidance was followed in No. 10. His strategy was distraction: obscuration, and repetition, and sentences that tripped along ring roads, going nowhere.
He has never been so boring: No one listening ever wants to hear the word “guidance” again. If the ability to inflict boredom was his defense, it was also his destruction. Johnson is supposed to be a seducer with a fascinating narrative arc ― one of his campaign videos aped the film “Love Actually” ― not a bore. But needs must. The fascination was thrown overboard.
He swore to tell the truth on a fawn-colored Bible, but he did not look at it. He rocked on his heels. He has had a haircut: As ever, his hair emotes for him. The mop, so redolent of Samson ― he would muss it before big speeches, to disguise that he cared ― is a sullen bowl now. He looked haunted. Lord Pannick, his lawyer, smiled behind him. His resting face is a smile, and he needed it.
Johnson told Harman there would soon be a Commons vote, as if she, Mother of the House, didn’t know. She said she would suspend proceedings for the vote, and he talked over her with a flurry of thanks. He thanked her four times. He didn’t mean it.
He read a statement: “I’m here to say to you, hand on heart, that I did not lie to the House.” He made a fist, and placed his hand on his chest where his heart isn’t: on the right-hand side. He said there was a near-universal belief in No. 10 that the guidance was followed, and that is why he said so to the House.
He shuffled his papers, as handsome Bernard Jenkin, a Tory, began the questioning with exaggerated gravity, to indicate that the Tories are through with levity. He reminded Johnson that he had regularly said “hands, face, space” while standing behind podiums that said also said, “hands, face, space,” which indicated he understand the guidance.
They discussed the leaving party of Lee Cain, Johnson’s former director of communications. There were 15-20 people there, Jenkin reminded him, you gave a speech. Johnson said guidance was followed, at least while he was there. Jenkin pressed him. “I don’t accept that people weren’t making an effort to distance themselves socially from each other,” Johnson said, while we gazed at a photograph of people standing next to each other. And this was how it was for 300 minutes: We were invited to ignore the evidence of our own eyes, even as they chilled with boredom.
Johnson insisted: “It was necessary because two senior members of staff were about to leave the building in pretty acrimonious circumstances. It was important for me to be there and to give reassurance.” This fits the Johnson myth. He was there for morale, while others governed, because that’s boring. I am not sure that the leaving party of a press aide is a matter of state, but Johnson always lived for headlines. Even so, he pleaded: We had sanitizers, we kept windows open, we had Zoom meetings, we had Perspex screens between desks, we had regular testing ― way beyond what the guidance advised!
“If you had said all that at the time to the House of Commons, we probably wouldn’t be sitting here,” said Jenkin mildly, even sympathetically, and that’s when I knew it was over. Tories are awfully like characters from “The Godfather” sometimes: murderers come with smiles. “But you didn’t.”
Jenkin read the guidance to him: “You must maintain social distancing in the workplace wherever possible.” “The business of the government had to be carried on!” Johnson cried. “That is what I had to do!” No one replied: “It was Lee Cain’s leaving do, you maniac.”
On it went, trench warfare. Johnson didn’t seem to understand that he wasn’t describing an absence of law-breaking, but a culture of it. In his wine-filled wood, he couldn’t see a tree. Committee members suggested he breached the guidance. He said he didn’t ― and if it should have been obvious to him that he was breaching it, it should have been obvious to Rishi Sunak too. They asked him why he didn’t take proper advice when talking to the House. (Because he trusted the press office. His people. Lawyers aren’t his people.)
Bernard Jenkin said: “I put it to you, Mr. Johnson, that you did not take proper advice.” Johnson’s thumb stroked his other thumb. He exploded with tangents, and eventually half-shouted: “This is nonsense, I mean complete nonsense!” Lord Pannick’s smile slid down his face. He blinked.
I would like to say this is the last gasp for Johnson’s faux-aristocratic style, with its entitlement and its pseudo-intellectualism, but his danger was ever in his precedent. It is always pleasing when a narcissist is exposed, and by himself, but there will be another one along soon enough. I wonder if its hair will have its own cuttings file.
Amid his word salad, Johnson told Harman she had said things that were “plainly and wrongly prejudicial, or prejudge the very issue you are adjudicating.” She told him the assurances he used to inform parliament had been “flimsy.” Finally, he said he’d much enjoyed the day. (He lied.) The question, as ever with Johnson, is ― does he believe it himself? Truthfully, it doesn’t matter now.