In the long June days running up to the 2016 referendum on EU membership, Boris Johnson toured the country to promote the supposed benefits of Brexit. Wherever he went he drew large crowds. Leaving the European project, he told voters, would allow the UK to take back control of its money, its laws and its borders.
While the Vote Leave slogans cut through because they were simple (if often misleading), there were also high-minded constitutional themes, central to the great Johnson-led push for freedom. During a visit to Ipswich on 20 June 2016 he alluded to the most important, saying that staying in the EU would mean “the steady and miserable erosion of parliamentary democracy in this country”.
Three days after his visit, on 23 June, Ipswich and much of East Anglia voted to leave by a comfortable margin and the UK was heading out of the EU.
At that time it had suited Johnson to emphasise respect for the hallowed Westminster parliament, and the need to restore sovereignty to it, to bolster his entire Brexit endeavour.
Seven years on, in an extraordinary illustration of Johnson’s headlong decline, and the parallel implosion of his Brexit arguments in a heap of contradictions, he has found himself at war with the very parliament whose powers and authority he claimed to hold so dear.
On Thursday, the former prime minister was found by a committee set up by the entire House of Commons not only to have deliberately misled every one of its MPs over Partygate, but also of “being complicit” in a “campaign of abuse and attempted intimidation of the committee”.
The committee was so enraged with Johnson’s behaviour that it even recommended he be stripped of the right to a former MP’s pass, for life.
Johnson had quit as an MP nine days ago when he was given advance sight of the committee’s conclusions and realised the writing was on the wall. But his reaction then and since – accusing its seven members (four of them Conservatives) of a “political hit job” and of acting like a “kangaroo court” – has united former allies and his long-term opponents in condemnation.
One former Johnson supporter who had backed Vote Leave told the Observer on Friday that the ex-prime minister was now doing “incredible damage not just to our party but also to our system of government.”
And the former deputy prime minister and remainer Michael Heseltine invoked Oliver Cromwell’s address to MPs in 1653, telling Johnson: “In the name of God, go.“
Photographs and video of Johnson jogging round the grounds of his new Oxfordshire mansion in garish floral shorts, and heading through airports after lucrative overseas speaking engagements, had already underlined his dramatic exit from Westminster politics, even before the privileges committee report was published.
But when the bombshell 106-page document dropped in MPs’ inboxes early on Thursday, his fate was sealed beyond reasonable doubt.
Its language was brutal not only in its judgment of his behaviour over Downing Street parties during Covid lockdowns, but also over the casual contempt he had shown towards his elected colleagues’ work and the authority of parliament. Parliamentary reports normally express criticism in measured terms. Not this one.
“We have concluded … that in deliberately misleading the House Mr Johnson committed serious contempt,” the committee said.
“The contempt was all the more serious because it was committed by the [then] prime minister, the most senior member of the government. There is no precedent for a prime minister having been found to have deliberately misled the House. He misled the House on an issue of the greatest importance to the House and to the public and he did so repeatedly.”
It also noted the “very strong, indeed vitriolic” attacks Johnson made on the committee, including that it had “forced him out … undemocratically” – a view the MPs said was “completely unacceptable” and a further serious contempt of parliament.
Johnson’s shrinking band of supporters tried to rally to his cause on Thursday, suggesting that many Conservative supporters would take his side and support his view that the committee was a “hit job”, just as Republicans back Donald Trump in the US whatever his alleged crimes. They warned that Conservative MPs who vote for the report when it comes to the Commons on Monday could face deselection by their Tory associations.
Nadine Dorries, the former culture secretary who has vowed to resign as an MP after being denied a peerage in Johnson’s honours list, described the report as “quite bizarre” and said it showed inbuilt bias on the part of its chair, the former Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman, and the Tory MP for Harwich and North Essex, Bernard Jenkin.
Preaching the Johnson creed to the end, Dorries said: “Any Conservative MP who would vote for this report is fundamentally not a Conservative and will be held to account by members and the public. Deselections may follow. It’s serious. MPs will now have to show this committee what real justice looks like and how it’s done.”
Brendan Clarke-Smith, a Johnson loyalist elected in his 2019 landslide as MP for Bassetlaw, tweeted that he was “appalled at what I have read and the spiteful, vindictive and overreaching conclusions of the report”.
But in Dorries’s Mid Bedfordshire seat on Saturday, while there were mixed views, there was little indication of any groundswell of sympathy for the former PM or support for any form of political return.
Hugh Jackson, 64, a barrister out shopping in the market town of Ampthill, said he supported the findings of the privileges committee and he would not be supporting the party in a forthcoming byelection in Dorries’s seat. He thought that the Tories had performed “disastrously” over Brexit. “I will vote for anyone to get rid of the Conservatives here,” Jackson said.
Susan Scott, 53, a full-time carer for her 11-year-old son who is autistic, also supported the committee’s verdict on Johnson. “I think what he did was disgraceful,” she said. “He told us to follow the rules and then broke them. I had to stay in during lockdown with my son and we couldn’t go anywhere. He is out of touch with ordinary people.”
Others considered Johnson had been treated somewhat harshly. Elaine Lee, 66, a lifelong Conservative voter from Ampthill, said: “He was up against it as prime minister with Covid and I think he did a good job. I think they have been out to get him. I like him.”
John Fitzgerald, 63, a building contractor and a Labour supporter, said: “What has happened has been blown out of all proportion.” Johnson, he believed, “should have held up his hands at the time and said: ‘we had a stressful day, and we had a drink’. I don’t think he’s been a good leader, but I think he is still well liked by the nation.”
Few considered Johnson would return to frontline politics. Chris Gough, 45, an engineer from Ampthill, said the MPs’ report was damning: “There’s not a chance of him coming back from that.”
It is not just Partygate and Johnson’s clashes with the privileges committee that have damaged the former PM’s reputation in the minds of MPs. So too has his resignation honours list, in which he rewarded a host of allies and acolytes, many of whom helped him during the scandals over Covid rule-breaking events at No 10.
One peerage went to a junior aide, 29-year-old Charlotte Owen, who will become the youngest ever person to enter the second chamber. There were also eight other names on his peerages list that were rejected by the House of Lords appointments commission.
A source close to Johnson said the former prime minister stood by all those he had rewarded with an honour, believing they were “meritorious and will contribute to public service”. Many existing peers have their doubts and worry that his appointments have further damaged the reputation of the second chamber.
The pace at which the air has leaked out of the Johnson balloon will be evident for all to see on Monday when the Commons will be asked to vote on the privileges committee’s damning verdict and approve the sanctions it recommended.
It has not gone unnoticed that Johnson’s shame will be rubber-stamped on his 59th birthday – three years after a birthday gathering and the production of a controversial cake in No 10 caused much of the strife in which he now finds himself.
Many MPs believe that Johnson’s private call to his supporters not to bother voting against the privileges committee’s recommended punishment was issued because he is desperate to disguise his lack of support on the Tory benches, and wants, somehow, to try to keep the Johnson myth alive despite it.
Labour is not expected to try any political antics, such as attempting to make the punishment for Johnson more severe. In fact, Keir Starmer’s team will try to create a contrast with the chaotic Tory civil war by concentrating on its “energy mission” to invest in green technology.
It means that there may not be a vote at all, with the report simply being nodded through unopposed. The lack of a vote would be a huge relief for Downing Street: opposition parties have been planning to single out Tory MPs who abstain and accuse them of failing to deal with Johnson’s behaviour.
Despite Johnson’s waning power in parliament, however, No 10 recognises his potential for causing trouble in the rightwing media. Johnson rather pulled his punches in his first column under his money-spinning new contract with the Daily Mail on Friday. He opted to avoid continuing his war with Rishi Sunak (though there was a reference to the fact that “Caesar was right to be worried about Cassius”). Instead he detailed his late-night snacking on chorizo and cheese. “He wants to move on,” said a supporter.
A few Johnson diehards retain faint hopes that he might one day mount a comeback. They say that after a probable general election defeat, the parliamentary party will look very different and probably more rightwing. Should a new leader fail to make an impression on Starmer, Johnson could then perhaps be a frontrunner once again, is their line.
They hint darkly that there is plenty of ammunition to use against Sunak. Most notably, Johnson’s memoirs are scheduled to come out next year – probably the next general election year. As one supporter observed, archly: “They’re coming along …”
In Downing Street, however, there is a more relaxed air than for some time, now Johnson has been removed from the frontline. They describe him in No 10 these days as “just an ex MP” – the one who had to leave in shame, because he misled the parliament which, during his Brexit campaign, he had hailed as the cornerstone of our democracy.