Long runs the fox

Alastair Meeks
8 min readJun 12, 2023

Why Boris Johnson’s fate should not have been remotely surprising

I suppose this is what they call a teachable moment. Over the last year or so the commentariat has been consistently lagging behind, failing to see Boris Johnson’s inevitable comeuppance come up.

The consensus was first that the Privileges Committee would not investigate, then that if they did investigate they would give Boris Johnson the benefit of the doubt, then that if they did decide he’d misled Parliament he’d be found guilty only of recklessness and that in any case he would not receive a proposed punishment of a suspension of 10 days or more such as would engage the recall provisions. The consensus was wrong at every stage.

Perhaps because this failure was so universal, it has gone undiscussed by that same commentariat. If they don’t learn from their mistakes, they’ll inevitably repeat them. Even if they aren’t prepared to learn from their mistakes, we should.

I cheerfully admit that there’s a fairly large element of this post that’s going to be gloating about a prediction of mine coming true. As long ago as May last year, I noted that Boris Johnson seemed bang to rights. But it’s not just written to gloat. I don’t think I was particularly inspired. I just took a close look at the facts rather than go on vibes.

As I wrote last May:

“When proving any point, the matrix of facts must be considered in context, and that context includes the familiarity of the law as it applied from time to time. For example, Boris Johnson could not argue that he didn’t know that you drive on the left in Britain: it’s something no one would credibly believe. So the question that Jeremy Wright doesn’t really look at is whether Boris Johnson could credibly argue that when he gave Parliament assurances that all guidance was followed completely in Number 10 he didn’t know what the Covid laws and guidance were or about the social gatherings in Downing Street. That’s a question which it is very hard to give the PM the benefit of the doubt on, given they were laws and guidance that he had promulgated and promoted and given that he was well aware of many of the social gatherings.”

That was pretty obvious then. It’s not as though I was in a minority — the great majority of the general public has long believed Boris Johnson knew exactly what was going on, as poll after poll has shown. But for some reason journalists thought they knew better.

Their logic, such as it was, seems to have been based on two aspects. First, a vague sense that the world works that way. Former Prime Ministers are not laid low by Parliamentary committees; proving intention to mislead was implausibly difficult; some compromise would be found. Secondly, the journalists were clearly getting a steer from their contacts that the worst case for Boris Johnson would not come to pass. Both parts of this are worth examination.

The Way The World Works

First, the way the world works. In Britain, the political world works on a Parliamentary system. The Prime Minister is selected by the Parliamentary majority and ministers are appointed by him or her from Parliamentarians who are accountable to Parliament.

Such a system of scrutiny only works if ministers do not mislead Parliament. If ministers could mislead Parliament with impunity, the whole system would break down. Keeping this guardrail is incredibly important.

This isn’t some invention of mine, it’s been understood for a very long time. Everyone mentions Profumo but the point has also been stressed in more considered moments. In 1994 the Treasury Committee observed that:

“Effective accountability depends in considerable measure upon adherence by Ministers and civil servants to the duty set out in Questions of Procedure for Ministers “to give Parliament, including its Select Committees, and the public as full information as possible about the policies, decisions and actions of the Government, and not to deceive or mislead Parliament and the public”. We are aware of considerable public cynicism about the honesty of politicians generally and in this context concern about the honesty and integrity of Ministerial statements to and answers in Parliament might seem misplaced. However, the knowledge that Ministers and civil servants may evade questions and put the best gloss on the facts but will not lie or knowingly mislead the House of Commons is one of the most powerful tools Members of Parliament have in holding the Executive to account. Not only is the requirement laid down clearly in Government guidance to Ministers, it is a requirement which the House of Commons itself expects from all its Members, departure from which standard can be treated as a contempt. We accept that the line between non-disclosure and a misleading answer is often a fine one, not least because the avoidance of misleading answers 8 Research Paper 97/6 requires not only strict accuracy but also an awareness of the interpretations which could reasonably be placed upon an answer by others, but Ministers should be strengthened in their determination to remain the right side of that line by certainty about the consequences of a failure to do so. Any Minister who has been found to have knowingly misled Parliament should resign. [emphasis in original text]”

The Privileges Committee was established after that report (it is one of the heirs to the Standards and Privileges Committee that was established in 1995). The idea of recalling particularly errant MPs is later still, having finally come into law in 2015. The Privileges Committee were always going to take a suggestion of an MP intentionally misleading the House very seriously and still more so in the case of an MP who was Prime Minister: as noted above, it goes to the heart of the system. If a Prime Minister could lie with impunity, effective accountability would be shredded. This was never going to be a formality.

Then there’s the question of the strength of the evidence. At this point, journalists started playing cod-lawyers. There were a lot of suggestions that it would be impossible to prove that Boris Johnson intended to mislead. Now great claims require great proof. On this occasion, however, there was a lot of evidence. There are long-established rules of law determining that a person is treated as having knowledge if they are turning a Nelsonian blind eye. But even those wouldn’t really need to be drawn upon. Never mind the sheer number of social gatherings and the fact that Number 10 isn’t all that big, Boris Johnson attended quite a few of them. He could be expected to recognise a party and given the relevant laws passed were ones he himself had introduced, he could be expected to know that they were the wrong side of the line (even if he personally was not breaking any rules attending some of them). The basic facts were damning.

This wasn’t a criminal court and the Committee did not need to determine the point beyond all reasonable doubt. From the start, Boris Johnson was in deep trouble, with abundant evidence undermining his position. On this the general public were far more astute than the commentariat. They took a common sense look at the facts and drew the common sense conclusion. So, it seems, did the Privileges Committee.

The punishment had to fit the transgression. This was not a minor lapse. It was an attempt to mislead the House on the single most incendiary topic of the year. As noted above, it went to the heart of the system of government scrutiny that we have in the United Kingdom. A slap on the wrist was never going to be enough. (Even if the Committee had decided it was “merely” reckless, a slap on the wrist was never going to be enough. Parliament needs ministers to be anxious to be accurate.)

Even if the Conservative majority had been minded to go easy on him for a quiet life, the minority of opposition MPs would never have acquiesced to that. The optics of Boris Johnson being seen to be let off by his own party’s MPs would have been catastrophic both for the government and the whole system by which Parliamentary privileges are guarded. It wasn’t going to happen. That’s not the way the world works.

This much seemed pretty obvious to me at the end of last year and my prediction at the time on the subject is set out above. Yes, I’m gloating a bit but only a bit, because as I said, this seemed pretty obvious to me. That’s why I was so categoric.

I have been really surprised at how few people agreed with me. I have been less surprised that there has been no reflection on what for most was an unexpected turn of events. That is just the way the world works.

Sewage and Sewerage

I am not Boris Johnson’s greatest fan but there’s one thing he’s been consistently brilliant at and that’s finding gullible journalists to spin his yarns to. I’ve already written about how easily journalists have been duped by him here and here. This post makes the hattrick.

For over and over again we read stories in the press suggesting that Boris Johnson was in the clear, that he would not receive more than a slap on the wrist and so on and so on. On cursory inspection, all of these stories had to have come from Camp Johnson. This is a good example of the genre (“There is speculation that the committee — which has four Tory MPs against three from opposition parties — has decided to give Mr Johnson the benefit of the doubt”). It came out the day before Boris Johnson quit in a fury.

Anyone who actually watched was being done rather than what was being said would not have been fooled. The hiring of a QC, the sledging of the committee’s work, the attempts to secure the abandonment of the committee’s work in return for loyalty to Rishi Sunak: all these showed that Boris Johnson was well aware of just how dicey his position was.

So why did so many commentators get fooled? Ultimately, because they allowed themselves to be. Yet again, only one side was putting out information. So only that side got listened to.

Controlling the narrative is all very well, and Boris Johnson has long been masterful at that, but eventually you also need to have some control over events. For a considerable period of time, Boris Johnson has not been in control of events.

Thus passes Boris Johnson, who will now be able to spend more time with his families. The slew of by-elections he has provoked will prove uncomfortable for Rishi Sunak but afterwards the Conservatives can look forward to a less disruptive period.

We can all learn something from this imbroglio about media narratives. We should learn that media narratives are set by the most fluent and those who are most helpful to journalists, not by the most informed. The two may be the same but that’s not automatic by any means. Remember the difference.