With customary cakeism, Boris Johnson issues an apology for doing nothing wrong

·5 min read
Blower cartoon
Blower cartoon

It is fair to say that Boris Johnson has not always seen eye to eye with the legal profession.

When he prorogued Parliament to “get Brexit done” in 2019, he was slapped down by the Supreme Court.

When he attacked “lefty lawyers” a year later, he earned a rebuke from the Bar Council and the Law Society for “playing political games”.

Such was his obvious contempt for the profession that he frequently attacked Sir Keir Starmer, his Labour opponent, as a “lawyer not a leader” in the Commons.

Yet as his 52-page submission to the privileges committee shows, the law may well be an ass – but you still need the right lawyer to ride it.

And in The Case of the Former Prime Minister and Partygate, it is Lord Pannick KC who has galloped to the rescue in the vein of a knight on a white charger.

The barrister once described as “the ultimate lawyer’s lawyer” has helped Mr Johnson to produce a 110-paragraph defence of his actions during the pandemic that arguably amounts to the most precise piece of copy the former journalist has ever filed.

Boris Johnson - Aaron Chown/PA
Boris Johnson - Aaron Chown/PA

Characteristically, the document came a little late in the day, with the privileges committee sniffing that the dossier didn’t arrive until “2.32pm” on Monday, before being published around 22 hours later to eager anticipation in SW1.

The delay, the committee explained, was because the final version was only submitted at 8.02am on Tuesday after the original contained “a number of errors and typos”.

“Some people have suggested that we considered ourselves to be in a guidance-free bubble where the requirements we imposed on the rest of the country did not apply,” admits Mr Johnson in the first-person piece. With atypical seriousness, he insists: “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

What follows is a customarily cakeist “wasn’t me guv” mea culpa, which apologises for misleading the Commons while insisting that it was OK because it wasn’t done “intentionally or recklessly”.

Seeking to narrow the scope of the inquiry, which Mr Johnson claims has gone “significantly” beyond its terms of reference in seeking to determine whether he was in breach of the “Guidance” as well as the “Rules”, it’s an attempt at an exculpation on a series of legal technicalities.

A ‘novel concept’

Technically, he should not be judged on whether he broke the guidance since “a failure to follow the guidance was not a criminal offence”.

Technically, he should not be judged on whether he “recklessly” misled Parliament because it is a “novel concept”.

Technically, there is “not a single document” that indicates he was “in any way warned or advised” that he might have broken Covid rules. Dominic Cummings says otherwise, but his “animus” means he is technically not a “credible witness”.

Technically, it cannot have been “obvious” that the rules were not followed, because others also attended the gatherings along with No 10’s official photographer.

Technically, Downing Street staff went to “great lengths” to follow social distancing guidance while working “together around the clock… on the front line of the Government’s fight against Covid-19”.

“We took conspicuous steps to limit the spread of the disease,” he insists, seemingly forgetting that it spread like wildfire through the “old, cramped London town house, with many bottlenecks, and many small rooms”, resulting in his own near-fatal hospitalisation.

Technically, no cake was eaten and Happy Birthday was not sung at the event on June 19, 2020, for which he and Rishi Sunak were fined. So technically there is no reason why they should have received the police sanction in the first place.

As the ultimate Benthamite, it is perhaps little wonder the fun-loving political pleasure machine should be so enthusiastically channelling the utilitarian's famous quote about “the power of the lawyer” being “in the uncertainty of the law”.

Yet when the public were not let off on any technicalities during the pandemic – let alone told there was a distinction between the “Guidance” and the “Rules” – are they likely to appreciate the nuance?

If the former prime minister was left confused by measures drafted by his own government, then why on Earth were they imposed on an unsuspecting populace?

And if it wasn’t “obvious” to the man in charge that he might be breaking them by attending a series of “morale” boosting “parties” – albeit briefly – then were they really fit for purpose?

That Mr Johnson was forced to ask so many advisers, so many times, whether they had behaved in contravention of their own measures speaks to an administration that was not across its own brief at an unprecedented time of crisis.

The judge and jury of seven MPs who will hear his evidence on Wednesday may well decide that he was “technically” not in contempt by misleading Parliament, for many of these questions do go beyond the remit of this particular inquiry.

Yet Mr Johnson does not need to be found guilty of deliberately lying to the House of Commons for the truth of his premiership to be exposed.

For while he may be across the detail now – three years on from the first lockdown – what his 15,256-word account shows is how little grasp of the detail he had when he was laying down the law.