A few commentators have noticed that there was method to the Prime Minister’s madness in his sign off to PMQs last Wednesday. They were, of course, the immortal words of the Terminator: “Hasta la vista, baby” – fortunately without the robo-Austrian accent. But what Johnson meant by deploying them was to remind viewers of another phrase from Arnie’s locker: “I’ll be back.”
Unlike Schwarzenegger’s terrifying android, Johnson is unlikely to be seen driving cars into police stations any time soon. Instead, a confluence of circumstances, his opponents’ penchant for overkill, and the idolisation of his supporters may combine to provide the Prime Minister with the swift exit and rapid return to frontline politics for which he seemingly yearns.
In all of the political shenanigans of the last few weeks, I would not be surprised if many readers missed the recent report from the House of Commons Privileges Committee outlining the terms and processes it will follow in its Partygate inquiry. This is the probe as to whether the Prime Minister misled MPs when he assured them “all guidance was followed” in Number 10 during the pandemic.
Of course, that subsequently proved untrue. As much as one might want to forget the haggling over cakes in Tupperware and lukewarm prosecco that have clogged up our country’s political CPU in the last few months, this inquiry, which starts taking oral evidence in the autumn, does still have important implications for the career of Boris Johnson MP.
According to the report, the inquiry, headed by Harriet Harman, has received legal advice from the clerks of the House of Commons that makes it clear that Johnson does not have had to have deliberately misled MPs to be found to have misled the House, and thus to have held the Commons in contempt.
The Prime Minister being in contempt of parliament, according to a ruling by the Speaker, could be punished by the committee with a suspension from parliament. MPs would have to confirm the suspension – but then they did vote to have the inquiry in the first place. And according to the Recall Act, such a suspension might mean Johnson faces a by-election.
It would not be automatic. Johnson would have to be first suspended from the Commons for 10 days or more, and then 10 percent of voters in his constituency would have to sign a petition demanding one. The good people of Uxbridge and South Ruislip returned the Prime Minister with a majority of 7,210 last time. Are they keen to see him gone?
Nevertheless, Johnson would be humiliated by being forced to resign his seat. His victorious opponents would hope it was a final end to his political career. Moreover, he would face the prospect of being defeated. Although the constituency and its predecessors have been blue since 1970, North London’s changing demographics and Johnson’s public unpopularity would make an upset unsurprising.
Don’t get the Kleenex out too quickly. Between journalism, public speaking, and finally finishing his Shakespeare book, Johnson will earn enough money out of office and parliament to make Croesus look skint. He would still be able to make life as easy or difficult for his successor as he chooses from the pages of The Daily Telegraph or the studios of GB News – or even his own social media app.
Or his successor – fresh from him or her having to deal with a by-election loss so early into their premiership – could send Johnson to join his new appointments of Nadine Dorries and Andrew Roberts in the House of Lords. Lord Johnson of Uxbridge has a ring to it – although so does Senator Johnson of New York. I bet he wishes he had never ditched his US citizenship.
This would not preclude Johnson from returning to the Commons if he ever so wished. Hence, for example, the ongoing demands for Lord Frost to junk his ermine and stand for election. Up until now, the former Cabinet minister has been a particular favourite of Tory party members and out-riders. But with Johnson out of Downing Street, he would likely find himself usurped.
On the available evidence, a clear majority of Tory party members wanted Johnson to quit. But the minority who wish for him not to go are loud and passionate. That Lord Cruddas has so quickly been able to get over 10,000 to his ludicrous campaign to get the Prime Minister on the ballot paper shows there is a ready constituency of Johnson-obites ready to answer their pretender’s call
So should Bonnie Prince Boris find himself cast out by the Harman-overians any time soon, the role of prince across the water is already teed up for him. Already we see developing a narrative about his defenestration. Johnson is Julius Caesar, stabbed in the back by Brutus Javid and Cassius Sunak – political pygmies who have stupidly brought down a giant.
Johnson will want to be both Caesar and Octavian. Such an analogy fits Johnson much more easily than anything to do with Austrian cyborgs. Yet it is another sci-fi classic that holds the best insight for any Johnson-loathing MP wanting to expel him from the Commons as to why doing so might be a very silly idea.
To the Privileges Committee, I misquote Obi-Wan Kenobi: strike Johnson down, and he will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.