23 March 2023

The show has moved on, for now – and Boris can enjoy being Boris


Such has been the pace of British politics over the past year that yesterday’s long-awaited showdown at the Privileges Committee felt like a relic from another age. Boris Johnson, front and centre; the minutiae of the Covid regulations, trawled through in tortuous detail. It could scarcely have felt more like a relic of a vanished age if they’d all been smoking.

Were those of us who watched the whole three hours and change mad, in a coma, or back in time? Mostly the former, unless armed with the excuse of professional obligation. The whole thing was at times engaging theatre – thanks largely to Johnson’s distinct failure to keep his cool – but what did it change?

Nobody who has followed this story this long, and is sufficiently engaged to have tuned in, is going to have had their minds changed yesterday. There was no moment where the former prime minister realised, like one of Agatha Christie’s murderers, that the game was up, nor one where the game-changing evidence he’d promised actually materialised.

It was a bathetic scene. Johnson, the great triumphator, the getting-done-r of Brexit, liberator of the Red Wall from a century of Labour occupation, locked in a vicious rear-guard melee over a series of staff meetings as history marches on without him; the Shouting Temeraire, denied the glory of falling in battle, being towed into the past tense.

As someone who predicted about six of the first zero Johnson collapses before giving up on trying, I should probably caveat that last point. He is not yet history the way Liz Truss is history. Whilst not matching the kamikaze spirit of his most committed supporters, ConservativeHome’s latest special survey of Tory activists found a deep well of sympathy for Johnson amongst the grassroots: almost six in ten believe he did not deliberately mislead Parliament, and that the inquiry is unfair.

Our panellists don’t, currently, think he should return as Tory leader. But ask them again in a year’s time, if the economy hasn’t improved and the Conservatives are still trailing dangerously far behind Labour as the election looms, and who knows what they’ll say. 

There aren’t many parallels between Johnson and Margaret Thatcher, but one is that both were removed from power by their party before they could lose an election. Thus, despite all the auguries suggesting that each would have lost that election, they were both technically undefeated; the idea of Boris, the great election winner, has not been sullied by losing.

You can just imagine it. The Committee recommends the nuclear-option sanction of 11 or more days’ suspension; Labour activists in Uxbridge organise a successful recall petition and trigger a by-election; he turns it into a referendum on ULEZ and rises from the ashes, again, the tribune of Outer London.

Likely? No. But not impossible. That’s the Johnson magic.

How much does he really want the top job back, though? The conventional wisdom is ‘very much indeed’, and that is probably most of the truth. But recall that in October he apparently managed to secure enough nominations from MPs to take on Rishi Sunak, and baulked. In 2016 he abandoned his first leadership bid at the first sign of difficulty.

The myth of Boris has real value, not just in terms of his ego or his continuing influence in Tory politics but in cold, hard cash. He was reportedly advised in the autumn that defeat in the leadership contest would hurt his earning potential, and why should a bad defeat to Sir Keir Starmer not do the same?

Like an exiled Stuart princeling who preferred dining out on the sympathy of European sovereigns to landing in Scotland and taking a very long shot, Johnson may well prefer the role of lost prince, allowing Nadine Dorries and the other highlanders to wage a fitful guerrilla campaign while he cashes in on the romance of the cause.

At the very least, there will need to be a very tempting prize on the table for him to hazard so much of his earning potential against it. Events may yet create an opening – whether or not he seizes it will tell us a lot about whether he himself still thinks he’s the election-winner his supporters believe he is.

In the meantime, he’s back in his lucrative comfort zone, writing books and delivering coruscating after-dinner speeches. Perhaps there might even be a television spot in his future, although GB News perhaps has enough Tory MPs to be going on with. After an uncomfortable period of trying and eventually failing to be Johnson, it must be a relief to be free to revert, for now, to being Boris.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.