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If this is indeed the end of Boris Johnson’s political career, it is at least a fitting one. There is no precedent for a prime minister, or a former one, having been found guilty of deliberately misleading the Commons.

Understanding that he had been caught and was about to be punished, Johnson resorted to his trusted playbook. Bluster, humour and faux outrage were deployed to distract attention from the charges. But with his Trumpian attacks on the integrity of the most senior committee of the Commons, he not only increased his sentence but has handed Rishi Sunak the ammunition to ensure he has no chance of an early return to parliament.

The findings of the cross-party, but Conservative-dominated privileges committee are damning. “In deliberately misleading the House Mr Johnson committed a serious contempt”, one made “more serious because it was committed by the prime minister, the most senior member of the government”. His excuses, evasions and hairsplitting over whether he was aware of the lockdown-breaching events at Downing Street are meticulously but contemptuously brushed aside.

The committee of MPs decided his dishonesty was so grave that the only appropriate sanction had to be triggering the process that could force him to face a by-election. No sitting or former prime minister has ever faced such a serious punishment — the gravity of his offence, they concluded, was magnified by the fact he was in Downing Street at the time. The committee’s recommendation has to be ratified by the Commons, but given advance sight of the report and realising his colleagues would not save him, Johnson resigned as an MP rather than face that humiliation, triggering a by-election in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat.

By launching a personal and unmerited attack on the committee, Johnson magnified his offence. For bringing the institutions of parliament into contempt and impugning as a “kangaroo court” the integrity of a process widely seen as fair, the recommended suspension has increased to three months. Prior to his attacks, the likely suspension was expected to be between 10 and 20 days. This was a warning shot to others who might question the process when it finds against them. This is parliament, rightly, asserting itself.

Of course the number is for show. Johnson has already resigned. The only continued sanction is removing a former member’s automatic right to visit parliament. 

More significant is that the scale of the punishment and the ferocity of the report offers Sunak the excuse he needs to prevent Johnson standing as a Conservative candidate at the general election. A future leader could reverse this decision but by then Johnson might have missed the window to return. It also offers the House of Lords appointments commission grounds for denying a peerage should he ever seek one.

This leaves Johnson with only the martyr card to play — he is playing it ferociously but it is already clear that his fan group is dwindling. His cheerleaders will do their best and he will undoubtedly be a ferocious critic from outside the tent, with friendly newspapers paying well for ever more hyperbolic assaults on Sunak’s Tories. The party’s internal warfare will certainly intensify as Johnson revels in threats and talks of returning at the head of a new party.

Johnson will also be sufficiently aggrieved — a condition that rises in direct proportion to his actual guilt — to feel it even more necessary to ensure this is not the end of his career. To do so, however, he must now relentlessly damage his own party and its leader. He is clearly untroubled by the thought but it will come at a price among members whose goodwill he continues to need.

Some complain that he has been brought down over a trifle, for leaving parties and birthday cakes. This is to miss the point. There are a range of views about lockdown, from its sternest critics to its continued supporters and many in between.

But Johnson and his government made these zealously enforced rules. In wilfully ignoring them he showed contempt for the voters in whose name they were imposed. It is the most basic principle of democratic government that laws are for the governors and not just for the governed.

He then misled parliament — and through it the people — to get himself off the hook. Finally cornered, he denied, smeared and blustered in a desperate attempt to avoid the consequences of his own actions.

Johnson is not being forced out for birthday cake, or in some witch hunt. He is out because he broke the rules, lied and showed contempt for the voters and the country. Truly, nothing in his public life exposed him like the leaving of it.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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