The House of Commons Committee on Privileges has called for former PM Boris Johnson to be barred from having a former member’s pass, and with good reason.

T he House of Commons Committee on Privileges has published its long-awaited report on the conduct of Boris Johnson and the conclusions are damming.

“If Mr Johnson were still a Member he should be suspended from the service of the House for 90 days for repeated contempts and for seeking to undermine the parliamentary process, by:
a) Deliberately misleading the House
b) Deliberately misleading the Committee
c) Breaching confidence
d) Impugning the Committee and thereby undermining the democratic process of the House
e) Being complicit in the campaign of abuse and attempted intimidation of the Committee.”

This is a thunderous report. It is written with the legal precision of a barrister’s pen and yet conveys the committee’s deep disgust at the behaviour of the former prime minister.

The committee’s total ire is revealed in a final recommendation that Johnson should not be entitled to a former member’s pass to enter the parliamentary estate. In the world of Whitehall and Westminster, this really is expulsion from the club.

At the core of the committee’s conclusions is a psychological claim about Johnson’s worldview:

“His repeated and continuing denials of the facts, for example his refusal to accept that there were insufficient efforts to enforce social distancing at gatherings … The frequency with which he closed his mind to those facts and to what was obvious so that eventually the only conclusion that could be drawn was that he was deliberately closing his mind.”

Multiple biographies corroborate this account of his character. Tom Bowers’ The Gambler, Andrew Gimson’s The Rise and Fall of a Troublemaker, and Sonia Purnell’s A Tale of Blond Ambition all tell the tale of a young man who was encouraged and allowed to think that the normal rules of life did not apply to him.

His name is not even Boris, it’s Alex. “Boris” – and all the banter and buffoonery that goes along with it – emerged as an alter-ego character as he progressed through Eton and Oxford and wanted to stand out from the crowd.

Not shy, not retiring

As everyone jumps on the grave of Johnson’s political career and rejoices in what many appear to think is his final downfall it’s worth noting that Johnson has left parliament before and come back later as a rejuvenated figure. His first spell as an MP between 2001-2008 was not a success.

He was viewed by his party as too flippant, a chancer, an upstart celebrity politician who was not to be trusted. As his contemporaries like David Cameron and George Osborne were promoted Johnson’s parliamentary career flatlined to the extent that becoming the mayor of London offered a promising platform.

Johnson’s political career is not over. Rarely have four little words meant so much: “It is very sad to be leaving parliament – at least for now”. The destructive denials, rejections and deep sense of martyrdom with which the former prime minister has attempted to frame the privileges committee’s inquiry speaks to the existence of a powerful and highly populist post-parliamentary strategy.

That is a strategy which continues to promote “repeated and continuing denials” with regard to any facts that simply don’t fit into a populist narrative about the existence of an elite – “the establishment”, “the blob”, “the herd” or “them”, who are out to get “us” (the good, honest but downtrodden folk of the world).

The mind is closed to arguments that seek to moderate such a simple black-and-white worldview, and Johnson presents himself as the victim of oppression. He is the ousted leader of a pro-Brexit sentiment. Before you know it Johnson is back in the game as the self-selected leader of “us” against “them”.

Tried and tested strategy

What the committee’s report may well set in train is a new and potentially dangerous post-parliamentary phase in Johnson’s career where a man who declared as a young child that he wanted to be “world king” is now released from the constraints of conventional political office.

The “good chaps theory of government” was never very good at controlling a politician who simply rejected the rules and denied the facts.

The risk, however, is that the furore surrounding the committee’s findings simply pours oil on the populist fire that Johnson wants to inflame. With a bruised ego and a need for attention, combined with undoubted charisma and growing celebrity status, Johnson is almost perfectly positioned to flame and funnel anti-political sentiment in order to boost and bolster his own political position and at some point create an opportunity to return to frontline politics.

Compared to the US, populism has arguably never really taken off in the UK. Johnson won the 2019 election for the Tories on a “populism-lite” strategy and a form of wedge politics that framed a “pro-Remain” elite as thwarting the wishes of a “pro-Leave” public.

It was the populist predilection to play fast and free with the facts that worried so many of Johnson’s parliamentary colleagues and eventually led to his ousting from No. 10. The same predilection underlines the privileges committee’s scathing report.

The success of this strategy points to a more populism-heavy approach in the future, not a quiet retirement.

PMP Magazine


Text: This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PMP Magazine on 16 June 2023. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: Flickr/Number 10. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)

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