Thursday 23 March 2023

Loophole 22


One of the more surprising things about Boris Johnson’s performance yesterday was that he had spent several days rehearsing what to say and being coached about his answers. I dread to think how he would have performed otherwise. Whether we actually learned a lot that was new is another question; that a compulsive liar would lie about whether he had lied or not was a given from the outset. I have a smidgen of sympathy with his bewilderment at the fact that he was fined for attending his own birthday celebration whereas others present were not, but my bewilderment is not, like his, about why he was fined, but rather about why others, particularly those who organised the occasion, weren’t. Indeed, the whole approach of the Met to who was fined, who wasn’t and for what – and even as to who was or was not sent a questionnaire – seems to have been a largely random process. It’s a randomness for which he should be thankful, rather than critical; a more thorough approach would have seen the fixed penalty notices piling up on his doormat. After this week’s findings that the Metropolitan Police are institutionally misogynistic and homophobic as well as racist, it seems that we can add ‘incompetent’ to the charge sheet.

His defence, such as it was, to the charge of misleading the House of Commons was that he genuinely believed what he was saying to be true at the time: he genuinely believed that the rules and guidance which he put in place allowed everything that happened in Downing Street. In part it’s a very brave defence. Claiming that he was too stupid to understand his own rules might get him off the charge of misleading the Commons, but it hardly polishes his image as a man expecting to return to the top job. But he’s also trying to exploit a loophole: since part of the ‘guidance’ was, according to him, that people should ‘adapt’ the guidance as necessary to their particular circumstances, that was what he was doing. It's just that his ‘adaptations’ meant basically ignoring everything else in the guidance. That, one might say, is some loophole. We might even call it 'Loophole 22', since there is never any way in which anyone can break the guidance.

Overwhelmingly, though, what came across was someone who still doesn’t get it. He really does not understand why those who faithfully did as they were told should be in any way surprised or upset to find that he did something completely different. He’s always been special and different – the rules which apply to the common herd have never applied to him in the past and shouldn’t now. Indeed, even the rules under which he was being questioned shouldn’t apply to him – he more or less managed to say that he will accept the fairness of the process and the outcome only if, and to the extent that, it agrees that he is an entirely honest man.

The committee isn’t really investigating the gatherings in Downing Street at all; those gatherings are merely the underlying issue on which they have to decide whether he was, or was not, in contempt of parliament. They are working to a technical definition of that term, and it is for the committee members to determine whether the relevant criteria have been met or not, i.e. whether his misleading of the House was inadvertent, reckless, or intentional. However, in the wider sense of the word contempt, it was pretty obvious yesterday that he feels little but contempt for the committee and its members. Indeed, he seems to feel little but contempt for MPs, whether as individuals or a group, for the institutions of government, for the normal rules of political debate, for honesty and truthfulness, for the electorate at large – in fact for anything and anybody that isn’t Boris Johnson. Strangely, it’s still possible that, on the very narrow subset of his contempt for which he was being held to account, the members of the committee could still conclude that it was reckless at worst. But he surely did more than enough yesterday to rule out any possibility of inadvertence.

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