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Boris Johnson scuttles away from his flagrant crimes, like a whingeing guilty schoolboy | Andrew Rawnsley

Boris Johnson scuttles away from his flagrant crimes, like a whingeing guilty schoolboy | Andrew Rawnsley

Several books, many profiles and countless commentaries have been written about the life and crimes of Boris Johnson during the lurid passage of that toxic meteor through our political firmament. You have my sympathies if you don’t have much remaining appetite for delving into the inky depths of his dissolute character, but one thing has not been said quite enough. The man is a coward. Whenever faced with the consequences of his actions, he ducks. Whenever confronted with a choice that requires some courage, he swerves. Whenever asked to make good on a promise, he betrays. Whenever the choice is fight or flight, he flees.

This is one of the many respects in which he is so starkly different to Winston Churchill, the wartime leader he preposterously invited people to think of as his inspiration and role model for leadership. After the disaster of the Dardanelles campaign during the First World War, Churchill resigned from the cabinet and sought redemption and rehabilitation by crossing the Channel to serve on the western front. Found guilty of lying to parliament about the squalid scandal of Partygate, Mr Johnson can do no better than act the guilty schoolboy trying to hide from a deserved punishment. He is quitting as an MP because scarpering from the Commons was the last desperate resort left to him to avoid answering for what he did. He is scuttling from the scene of one of his most flagrant and egregious crimes against public life rather than face the music for trying to cover up a scandal by lying about it to parliament and to avoid the entirely appropriate sanction recommended by the seven MPs on the privileges committee.

In the richly storied history of British politics, there has been no ascent, peak, decline and fall quite like it. Some people have a go at trying to compare him with previous tenants of Number 10, but that is a futile quest. We have never seen anyone quite like him in Downing Street before and, if we are a lucky country, we will never do so again. Less than four years ago, his party was congratulating itself for making him their leader and hailing him as a demi-god for securing a near-landslide victory at the December 2019 election. Risible as it may now seem, even some of the more sensible Tories talked with wild hubris about a Johnson premiership lasting a decade, a fate that Britain mercifully avoided. Now the first British prime minister to be convicted of breaking the law while in office adds another ignominious entry to his blot-splattered biography by becoming the only British prime minister to be compelled to quit the Commons because of the magnitude of his disgrace.

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Being Boris Johnson, he is exiting the stage without a shred of humility, a scintilla of remorse or a sliver of recognition that he brought this on himself. It is nearly a year since he was defenestrated from Number 10 by a mass revolt of Conservative MPs who belatedly acted to remove him after he had finally exhausted even their willingness to indulge his mendacities. He is leaving parliament in the same petulant, vindictive and delusional fashion that he departed Downing Street. His statement announcing his resignation as an MP was an entirely uncontrite, utterly graceless and hideously self-pitying confection of nonsense about being the victim of a “witch-hunt”, a “kangaroo court” and “a political hit job”. It is Trumpian stuff that works on the principle that if you are going to lie you might as well lie big. There is some piquancy in the coincidence that Mr Johnson has been impelled to leave our parliament in the same week that his political relative across the Atlantic has been indicted for breaking federal law. I suppose it is kind of fitting that a career which was so often powered by mendacities should end with a departing deluge of them.

Of the privileges committee, the manchild whinges: “I am being forced out, anti-democratically, by a handful of people, with no evidence to back up their assertions… Their purpose from the beginning has been to find me guilty… I believe that a dangerous and unsettling precedent is being set.”

Does he really believe this? Does he expect anyone else to? The dangerous and unsettling result would have been Mr Johnson getting away with lying to parliament about an extremely grave scandal and doing so from the highest office in the land. The investigation by the privileges committee was established with a mandate from the Commons as a whole. The majority of the members of the committee are Conservative MPs. Contrary to his ludicrous ravings about being the victim of some kind of revenge-conspiracy to get him for Brexit, the committee’s two most senior Conservative members, Sir Bernard Jenkin and Sir Charles Walker, are themselves Brexiters. The committee conducted an entirely legitimate investigation and perfectly proper interrogation of his misconduct. They did so with the authority of MPs as a body using a process approved by the Commons and one endorsed by Mr Johnson himself when he was prime minister.

He could have sought to have the committee’s verdict – which I am told is coruscating – overturned by the Commons. Someone who authentically believed himself to have suffered a miscarriage of justice might have attempted that. That he has chosen not to appeal to the Commons is an implied acknowledgment of how low his standing has sunk even among the Conservative MPs who put him in Number 10. The country is still awaiting their apology for inflicting him on Britain. He could have manned up, taken the penalty and put his fate in the hands of his constituents by facing and fighting a recall byelection. This is the course some among his residual claque of supporters had been swearing he would take just a few weeks ago.

There is no martyr to see here. There is a man who serially debased the high office that he was never fit to hold. There is a man who turned government into a carnival of clowning, chaos and chicanery. There is a man who presided over an appalling regime of lockdown-busting and law-breaking in Downing Street which triggered entirely justified public outrage and was poison for the people’s faith in government.

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However he and his shrunken band of apologists may try to dress this up, he is jumping before he was pushed, he is surrendering his seat in the Commons because he calculated that he was going to be sacked from it.

His farewell gift was to drop another turd on the reputation of politics. To his many defilements of public life, we can add his trashy dishonours list. The gongs and baubles for his acolytes, cronies and enablers was a contemptuous parting flick of the fingers to the country. There may be no knighthood for his father, one of the shockers shorn from his original selection, but this is still an appalling list which would not have been signed-off by Rishi Sunak had the prime minister been true to his pledges to uphold integrity and accountability in public life. Those who lost loved ones during the pandemic or suffered other forms of grief will rightly find it grossly offensive to see garlands being dished out even to some who played prominent roles in Partygate.

Might he return one day? His vanity will be fed by speculation about a comeback which is why he encouraged it by teasingly talking about leaving parliament “for now”. His ability to harvest cash on the international speech-making circuit will be diminished if potential paymasters think of him only as a disgraced former prime minister rather than as someone who might become an active player again in the future. If he can combine making money with making trouble for Mr Sunak, he will do so. He will be a spectre at the feast of British politics for some time to come. But he will be, I reckon, an increasingly pathetic and friendless ghost.

Some of the officials who saw him at close quarters at Number 10 came away from the experience wondering whether he actually understood the difference between right and wrong and whether he ever really grasped the distinction between the truth and lies. Unless he has entirely succumbed to delusions, there must surely be a portion of his brain which knows that the person responsible for the destruction of his political career stares back him at him whenever he looks in a mirror. Yet he can never acknowledge, at least not in public, what is obvious even to some of those who were once counted among his most ardent supporters. It is the way of the coward to flinch from confronting the inescapable truth that the architect of Boris Johnson’s downfall is Boris Johnson.

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Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer

Andrew Rawnsley

Published: 2023-06-10 15:01:01

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