What does ‘obvious’ mean?
That’s the crux of the case against Boris Johnson, which played out this week as he faced the Privileges Committee.
Is it ‘obvious’ that you are breaking the rules - *your* rules - or do you need someone to tell you that you are breaking the rules - *your* rules? Johnson’s defence is that he doesn’t ever know whether doing something is right or wrong, legal or illicit, unless someone of sufficient stature explicitly tells him. The Committee’s case is that grown adults ought, in fact, to be able to navigate such dilemmas on their own. Particularly if those grown adults happen to be the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
In the end, the session felt flat and irritable. In part, that was because Johnson lacked anything particularly coherent or new to add. In part it was due to the essential absurdity of the exercise. Everyone - including Johnson - knows that he is guilty of both breaking the rules and of seeking to obfuscate that fact.
What is really contentious, is whether the level of scrutiny and the potential punishments are proportionate. What Boris Johnson couldn’t say, but likely believes, is this: “Yes, we broke the rules a little bit. But working in Downing Street is materially different to working almost anywhere else and being Prime Minister does - and should - afford one some perks and some privileges that are not afforded to everyone else. Now grow up, leave me alone and get a life.” As we say, he couldn’t say that. And so everyone had to pretend the defence that he was mounting was worthy of consideration, that the Committee has not already made up their collective mind, that this was anything other than a Potemkin trial. Nonetheless, it is obvious that this is what it was.
What happens next? The Committee will deliberate, of course. It took them ten months to get to this point so I wouldn’t hold your breath. And then they will report back and recommend a sanction - if that means a suspension of more than ten days then a petition will be launched to decide whether Johnson should face a by-election. If ten per cent of the residents of Uxbridge decide they’d like rid of Mr. Johnson (or just that it would be funny to watch him plead for his seat) then there will be a by-election. Johnson could stand. Or he could not (it doesn’t look good for him either way). All of which is to say, we’ve got months of this stuff to go. Months and months of talking about Boris Johnson. Again.
That’s the bad news for Rishi. Johnson is hideously unpopular and the more he is in the news, the more people are reminded of him, the more his demented surrogates dominate the airwaves pleading his sanctity, the more harm he does to the Party Sunak now leads. But still, the Prime Minister will be feeling pretty cheery about the week that was - despite the mild embarrassment of having to admit yet again to being very, very rich and paying a much more favourable tax rate than the rest of us.
Why? Because Boris is no longer a clear and present threat to him.
Less than six months ago more than a hundred Tory MPs wanted to put Johnson back in Downing Street. This week, just twenty two of them voted with their belated leader and against their current Prime Minister - on Northern Ireland, that graveyard of recent PMs, no less. Sunak’s ratings are rising again, Tory MPs are beginning to be reintroduced to the feeling of hope, some stuff is actually getting done. All the reasons to call for Boris are receding, just as he fights for his political life against an existential threat entirely of his own making.
Whether any of this will save the Conservative Party from defeat at the hands of Sir Keir (currently to be found ruthlessly annoying his left flank by telling voters exactly what they want to hear on crime) is unclear. But will it protect him from the machinations of Boz? Yes, obviously.