March 23, 2023 - 9:37am

After yesterday’s marathon evidence session, it looks increasingly likely that the Privileges Committee will find that Boris Johnson “deliberately or recklessly” misled Parliament, and recommend a sanction to the House of Commons.

They will probably not go so far as the nuclear option — a suspension long enough to expose him to a recall petition and the threat of a by-election. But, even so, it would be an historic humiliation for the former prime minister. 

In theory, the Government could spare him. The Committee’s recommendations need to be approved by MPs, and the Conservative majority, while more fragile than it looks, is still over 70. During Liz Truss’s fleeting premiership, such an intervention seemed unlikely but not entirely impossible.

Rishi Sunak, however, has been clear that he will not whip in his predecessor’s defence. The convention is that MPs get a free vote on House business, and a free vote it shall be.

This stance can be explained by motives high and base. It really is a reversion to the norm that preceded Johnson’s fateful decision to intervene on behalf of Owen Paterson; it also hasn’t escaped the notice of senior Tories that it was this decision which set off the slow collapse of his premiership.

Sunak’s number one priority is drawing as bright and broad a line as possible between that period and his own, not least because (as Johnson mentioned just the once) he was fined himself.

And Johnson did not act yesterday like a man who thought the cavalry was coming. He defended himself vigorously and at length, but not in a manner that seemed calculated to persuade the seven MPs arrayed against him.

His real audience, one suspects, was the one behind the cameras. Not the professionals and obsessives following live, but the section of Conservative activists and voters who still believe in him.

This is not a small group. When we conducted a special survey of our panel of Tory activists at ConservativeHome over the weekend, almost 60% said they didn’t think he deliberately misled the House and that they thought the Privileges Committee’s investigation was unfair.

And while they might not be as committed to Johnson’s cause as some of his fiercest supporters seem to believe (only a quarter thought he should return as prime minister) there are enough true believers to have some MPs worried about having to vote on his fate before they have been selected for their newly-redrawn constituency. 

These are the people who will nurture the myth of Boris; the idea that he could have won the next election and made a triumph of Brexit if he had not been brought down by scheming “marsupials”. They can ensure he remains a force in Tory politics, even if he never returns to the front bench.

And if this vision of himself as the lost prince of the Right happens to increase his earning potential on the book tour and speech circuit? That’s quite the consolation prize.

Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.