Wednesday, 22nd March, 2023

[Day 1101]

Today was an interesting day, dominated as it was by the committee appearance of Boris Johnson about which much more later. Knowing that the afternoon might be quite engaging, Meg and I seized the opportunity to have an excursion into the park after which we had picked up our newspaper. It was a fairly fine day and we made our way to our normal bench to have our coffee and elevenses. It is true to say that our ventures to the park are somewhat less these days because we tend to frequent the Waitrose coffee bar on about three occasions per week, once on our regular Tuesday meeting with friends and on two further occasions over the weekends when we met up with our University of Birmingham friend. Today, though, in the space of about twenty minutes we actually had conversations with four acquaintances that we have come to know over the past few years when we have made regular walks in the park. The first person that we came as was Intrepid Octogenerian Hiker who we do not seem to have met for some weeks now. The latter has a special app on his watch which takes the steps that he is undertaking and maps these over onto a simulated walk somewhere in the world. Today, our friend was two thirds of a trip through The Rockies in the USA, after which he could no doubt claim a medal to add to his extensive collection. Then we met one half of a couple who we know live in The Lickies and quite regularly come for a walk in the park. Then we met up with a man who regularly walks his Labrapoodle dog who, we know, comes to the park most days of the week and is always a fund of good stories. Finally, we were joined by a Police Community Support Officer who knows us all quite well from the days when she used to semi-patrol the park at the height of the Covid pandemic. So what is remarkable about this morning was that in quite a sporadic appearance in the park, we should bump across so many acquaintances.

And so we came to the main entertainment of the day which was the Boris Johnson appearance before the Committee on Privileges of the House of Commons. I think that a fair summary of the whole afternoon is that Boris Johnson gave quite a feisty and combative performnce, maintainly doggedly to the line that he thought that all of the ‘parties’ held in Downing Street were within the guidance and the rules as they were ‘workplace events’ in which, on more than occasion, he was giving thanks to staff on what was a ‘leaving do’. But although there were three places in which Boris Johnson might be said to have really difficult time. Firstly,trying to maintain consistently that every single party was an absolutely necessary in order to maintin morale and to give thanks to staff who were leaving strained credibility to the utmost. There as no reason why staff could not be bid farewell in a ‘Zoom’ call or with a personal letter. A second, but related point, is that according to the guidance in force at the time, all work colleagues should maintain a distance of two metres from each other – however, this distance of two metres could be reduced to one metre if there is ‘mitigation’ e.g. a perspex screen. Johnson maintained that staff tried to keep within the guidelines at all times but the distances that were kept were approximate at times. A more ludicrous point was that mitigation measures such as perspex screens were deployed but not actually in the rooms where the social events took place but ‘in the rooms next door’ A third point, when Johnson was pressed on who proferred the assurances that the guidelines were kept at all times, the sources of advice seemed not be civil servants or lawyers but party political appointees such as a communications director. The committee will now take weeks to make up its mind and I do not expect a result until mid-April i.e. way after the Easter recess. To the principl charges, Johnson may well get away with the charge that he ‘knowingly’ misled Parliament as proving Johnson’s state of knowledge must be almost impossible. But on the charge of being ‘reckless’ then the committee would be on much stronger ground on the basis of written evidence already received and some of the revelations that came out of the committee hearings this afternoon.

Half way through the committee hearings and as expected, MPs needed to take a vote on the ‘Windsor’ agreement (a new protocol for Northern Ireland trade, post-Brexit) Labour voted with the government and there was a rebellion of 29 MPs, 22 Tories, all of the six Democratic Unionists MPs and one independent. So this was quite a small rebellion as the total number who support the ERG is about 34 MPs so it looks as though one third of them did not follow the ERG line to vote against the government but followed a fairly large number of MPs who abstained. Incidentally, as the attention of the political class was focused upon Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak chose today to release the details of his tax returns when the hope was that nobody would be watching i.e. a good day to bury bad news.