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A rogue prime minister has been found guilty of lying to parliament, by a committee containing a majority of his own party. England has seen nothing like this in 300 years — since the role was created. This is our Watergate: and the attempts to trivialise it demonstrate what was wrong with the Johnson regime. 

When rumours first began to circulate about parties in Downing Street, several people I’d worked with there rang to express astonishment. “Who takes photos of themselves at work?” one asked. We were already hearing about Johnson’s casual attitude to governing: that he rarely finished his red boxes, and left top secret documents lying around. But Number 10 as an alcohol-fuelled bingefest, with staff wheeling in suitcases of booze to avoid the police? It sounded like the court of a king whose lockdown rules condemned people to die alone.

If this sounds prissy — and it does to many Johnson allies — that’s because of the Boris effect. His lengthy resignation letter was a rant of teenage self-pity. His henchmen are now going after Sir Bernard Jenkin, one of the Conservatives on the committee which unanimously agreed that he should be suspended for more than 10 days, the threshold for a by-election. Jenkin was a Brexiter long before Boris: this has not been a Remainer “witch-hunt”, but parliament standing firm against wrongdoing.

The establishment has no love for Brexiters like Jenkin, or for free-thinkers like Sir Charles Walker, a Tory backbencher who argued passionately during the pandemic about the damage lockdowns were doing to mental health. Such independent-minded people are not clubbable, and often prickly. But our democracy needs them. In acting as a court of parliament, they have done their public duty. 

One of the most worrying statements in the committee’s report is its assertion that there has been “a sustained attempt, seemingly co-ordinated”, to undermine its credibility. Its Labour chair Harriet Harman, the veteran MP, has been accused for months of being tribal. But the censure of a former prime minister goes beyond party politics to the very heart of our democracy. By fighting back against Johnson’s attempts to impugn it, and imposing a 90-day suspension on him, MPs are trying to strengthen parliament’s hand against future wrongdoers.

The past week has brought into focus something that took me a long time to realise. Johnson is not just a cheeky renegade, a narcissist who couldn’t be bothered to actually do the job he’d wanted all his life. He can also behave like a thug. Last year, I was struck by how nervous some Conservative MPs were about serving on the committee which might have to investigate him. You didn’t have to be a genius to think that he’d lied and that his defence — that no one could read his mind so couldn’t prove he had knowingly misled parliament — was thin. It was not just the awkwardness of censuring a former leader; they feared for their careers.

Johnson has tarnished almost everyone in his orbit: Allegra Stratton, filmed sheepishly thinking about how to cover up the parties; Simon Case, the cabinet secretary who has been utterly compromised; the self-made Lord David Brownlow, embroiled in a row over Johnson’s wallpaper; and the ministers who regularly trooped into broadcasting studios to defend the indefensible, only to find their leader had hung them out to dry. 

The mask has slipped. In resigning rather than staying to fight the by-election, Johnson appears to have little confidence in his avowed vote-winning ability. In attacking Rishi Sunak rather than apologising for his own failings, he seeks revenge on a man who is showing him up in offering competent government. In seeking to destabilise his own party, he will earn no thanks from Tory MPs who fear losing their seats at the next election. 

He was never going to go quietly. I hear he is now considering standing as an independent in next year’s London mayoral election. The tragedy is that he was quite good at that job — and some of those on his honours list are people who worked for him then. He was just never able to rise to the heights required of a prime minister. 

But this time, he has misread the room. Talk to anyone who was prevented from holding the hand of a dying relative during Covid, or whose children were scarred by the cancellation of exams and closure of schools. We followed rules that he and his acolytes did not. They made fools of us. 

To have offered not one shred of apology, to have failed to grasp the public anger, suggests that Johnson has lost his political touch. Those who still maintain it was just a bit of birthday cake should read the testimony from a Number 10 official in an appendix to the report. This describes how “Wine Time Friday” gatherings (which started at 4pm — great value for the taxpayer) were held throughout the pandemic. Staff were told to be mindful of the cameras outside when they left the building.

Tory MPs are partly to blame. They never liked Johnson but backed him to beat Jeremy Corbyn — who in retrospect was not so hard to beat. Amber Rudd, who resigned from Johnson’s cabinet, once said he was “not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening”. But few realised just how recklessly he would steer, and how far off the road. 

The voices claiming that Johnson is a martyr are loud, but they are few. The circus may continue a while longer, but we’ve seen through the act.

camilla.cavendish@ft.com

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