By James PHEBY
His hair unusually neat, and avoiding his trademark quips, former British prime minister Boris Johnson exchanged blows with his interrogators in an hours-long battle over the “Partygate” scandal Wednesday.
Johnson ambled into the lion’s den of the House of Commons privileges committee just after 2:00 pm (1400 GMT), sitting impassively as chairwoman Harriet Harman detailed his alleged sins.
He faced his seven inquisitors with his top-dollar lawyer David Pannick immediately behind, ready to intervene on behalf of his notoriously loose-tongued client.
Johnson nodded and checked his watch before swearing an oath on a copy of the King James Bible, kicking off a session that he hoped would save his political skin.
Gone was his usual jocular bluster as he instead read out a legally crafted opening statement, pleading his innocence while criticising the committee and settling scores with political foes.
“Hand on heart, I did not lie to the House,” he told the committee, adding that they had “found nothing” to suggest he had deliberately lied to MPs about the boozy gatherings in 10 Downing Street.
He also sought to shoot the messenger, alleging the committee’s investigative methods were “manifestly unfair” and “extremely peculiar”.
Another in Johnson’s firing line was Dominic Cummings, who since being sacked as a top Downing Street adviser has been on a one-man mission to bring down his former boss.
His evidence “plainly cannot be relied upon”, Johnson said. “He has every motive to lie.”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, whom Johnson blames for his downfall as leader, also came in for attack. Sunak must also have believed the Downing Street gatherings were within the rules, he claimed.
– ‘Misremembering’ –
Playing down a birthday gathering for which he and Sunak were fined, Johnson claimed that the “famous Union Jack cake stayed in its Tupperware box”.
But Labour MP Yvonne Fovargue queried that if it was an innocent gathering among colleagues, how did Johnson explain the attendance of his expensive interior designer?
The committee shot back with photographs, and Johnson’s own words.
Senior Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin asked why he considered it to be within the guidelines to toast colleagues at workplace drinks, while imploring the rest of the country to respect lockdowns.
Johnson’s mood became more tetchy under persistent questioning from Jenkin and other Tories on the committee.
A grimace crossed his face as he repeatedly karate-chopped the table with his hand to make his point.
Clearly irritated, Johnson said that people who thought staff were partying “simply do not know what they are talking about”.
But he was left shuffling uncomfortably when he admitted “misremembering” about details of assurances he had received about one event he talked about in parliament.
He also got hot under the collar when Harman pressed him about why he had only sought “flimsy” assurances from political advisors present at certain events, rather than proper legal advice.
“This is complete nonsense,” he snapped.
Committee members in turn grew particularly pointed when they reminded Johnson that his loyalists had called the hearing a “kangaroo court”.
“I deprecate the terms you have used,” the former leader replied, disowning the attacks in roundabout language.
“There should be no intimidation, no attempt to bully any colleagues whatsoever,” he said, even as he attacked the committee’s methods.
As the ordeal drew to a close after three and a half hours, Johnson thanked the MPs. “I’ve much enjoyed our discussion,” he said, drawing his first laugh of the day.