Partygate inquiry: can Boris save his skin?

Former PM to release ‘bombshell’ defence before Wednesday’s crunch committee appearance

Boris Johnson illustration
Boris Johnson still hopes to return to Downing Street as PM
(Image credit: Illustrated/Getty Images)

Boris Johnson has set out the case for why he did not knowingly mislead Parliament ahead of a long-awaited appearance before the Commons select committee charged with deciding his political fate.

A 50-page dossier released by his legal team and expected to be made public this afternoon is said to include WhatsApp messages suggesting Johnson was acting on the advice of officials when he told the Commons that rules were followed at all times in Downing Street during Covid lockdowns. At the same time the former prime minister will seek to portray the inquiry as biased and politically motivated.

It is all part of what Politico’s London Playbook described as an “audacious preemptive strike ahead of his live televised grilling in front of the privileges committee on Wednesday”.

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What did the papers say?

“The stakes could not be higher,” said The Times, with the group of seven MPs on the privileges committee set to determine “whether Boris Johnson’s political career is extinguished – or reborn”.

“Little wonder, then,” claimed the paper, “that some MPs are framing the hearing as Johnson’s ‘January 6’ moment – a reference to the US congressional committee that investigated the Capitol Hill riot and Donald Trump’s role in it”.

Allies and friends quoted in The Telegraph claim the “bombshell defence dossier” will show that “the general assumption of everyone present, including those hostile to Boris, was that rules and guidance were followed.

“That destroys the argument that Boris must have known it was not in the rules,” one of his allies said.

The idea that Johnson cannot get a fair hearing from the committee, despite four of its seven members being Tory MPs, is also “a regular refrain of Johnson’s supporters”, said The Guardian’s political correspondent Peter Walker. Allies have tried to paint the process as a “witch-hunt”, driven by a biased chair in Labour MP Harriet Harman, and that Sue Gray, who led the Whitehall investigation into lockdown breaches in Downing Street, was out to get him from the start. Gray is still hoping to take up the role of Labour leader Keir Starmer’s chief of staff.

“Aside from navigating the nitty-gritty of parliamentary procedure, creating a compelling narrative is the real aim for Johnson, who does not seem to have given up hope of a return to high office,” said Rachel Wearmouth in The New Statesman’s Morning Call newsletter. “But the image of a once-mighty politician blaming former staff for his misconduct is not one he’ll want to project.”

What next?

Johnson is due to appear in front of the committee on Wednesday afternoon for a mammoth televised session that could take up to five hours.

If he fails to convince the members and is found guilty, he could be suspended from the Commons, and even face a recall petition, which would trigger a by-election that he would most likely lose.

“Crucially, though,” said the BBC, “MPs would have to approve any sanction on Johnson.”

Adam Boulton, long-time political editor and now commentator at Sky News, said: “However he is treated by the committee, Johnson will be playing to the dwindling band of Boris-loyalist politicians and party members and his champions in the Tory media, who are already claiming that he was brought down unjustly by a partisan left-wing conspiracy.” Despite a “strong circumstantial case” against the former PM, the “chances must be low that the lying inquiry will finally drive the stake through the heart of Johnson’s political career”, he concluded.

Even if it does not come to that, a negative verdict could prove politically fatal. A Savanta poll by the Independent found two-thirds of voters believe Johnson should not wait to be punished and should quit his seat if he is found to have lied.

In the event of a vote being called, Johnson is expected to ask the privileges committee to publish all the evidence it has received and demand that it is unredacted.

“His allies contend sunlight is the best disinfectant,” said The Times. “The problem for Johnson is that many Conservative MPs believe the only way to clean up the mess is to back the committee’s recommendations, regardless of how ruinous they may prove for him personally.”

Like Rishi Sunak, “most Tory MPs fighting to save their seats probably wish the unseemly Johnson saga would go away”, said Wearmouth for The New Statesman. “Whether the former PM is prepared to go quietly is another matter.”

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