By Gwynne Dyer
At first, it just looked like dumb luck.
Less than a year after he was driven from office by his own party, former British prime minister ‘Boris’ Johnson was getting his final comeuppance. The cross-party Privileges Committee that was created to determine whether he had lied to Parliament issued its interim report last week, and it
It said that Johnson must have known about the frequent drinks parties held by his personal staff to celebrate birthdays, people leaving, or simply the fact that it was Friday. How could he not have? It all happened in his own official residence in Downing Street, and eye-witnesses and photos say he often took part. The police even fined him for it.
The crime was not drinking wine. It was drinking in large groups at a time when ordinary people were not even allowed to visit hospitals to say farewell to dying parents.
Such contempt for ordinary people was damaging the Tory (Conservative Party) brand, as was Johnson’s general incompetence and fecklessness, so last year the Tories themselves ditched him. But the party is already on his
second replacement as prime minister (Rishi Sunak), and Johnson still hopes to make a come-back.
The biggest obstacle to that is the Privileges Committee, because if it finds him guilty of lying to Parliament it can recommend that he be suspended or even expelled from Parliament. That would end his come-back hopes – but
there was a last-minute hitch.
Sue Gray is a senior career civil servant who worked in the prime minister’s office as ‘ethics adviser’. She led the inquiry into the allegations of drunken parties in Downing Street, which criticised the prime minister for “failures of
leadership and judgement.”
But last Thursday she announced that she was quitting the civil service and taking a job as chief of staff to Labour Party leader Keir Starmer. Johnson’s
supporters instantly realised that this could be used to wash away Johnson’s sins.
As his devoted backer Jacob Rees-Mogg put it: “So much for an impartial Civil Service. The Gray Report now looks like a left-wing stitch up against a Tory prime minister.” I’m a simple, trusting soul, so I swallowed the idea that Gray and Starmer had made a big political mistake by letting Johnson wriggle off the hook like that. Gray’s change of job didn’t really discredit the evidence against Johnson, but you know how people think.
However, my wife Tina Machiavelli – ‘Tina Viljoen’ to the rest of the world – saw right through it. She immediately asked: Why would Starmer and Gray deliberately schedule the latter’s resignation for the precise week when they knew the Parliamentary Privileges Committee would be releasing its report?
It’s almost as if they want to keep Johnson in play. Another leadership struggle would further discredit the Tories, and if Johnson became prime minister again he would probably be easier to beat in next year’s election.
Even if Rishi Sunak stays the course, the Conservatives will probably lose the 2024 election – they’re just too far gone. At that point some of the demoralised survivors would certainly turn to Johnson to lead the party back out of the wilderness, while others would still blame him for wrecking
That could even split the Conservative party permanently. The trajectories of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump grow ever more closely aligned.
That may not all happen. From the point of view of Keir Starmer, Sue Gray and the Labour Party, however, what’s not to like?