The Privileges Committee matters; but Boris Johnson’s far greater dishonesty was over Brexit

Both the Conservatives and Labour want to move on from the story of Johnson and Brexit—but it matters

April 28, 2023
Boris Johnson appeared before the Privileges Committee in March. Image: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
Boris Johnson appeared before the Privileges Committee in March. Image: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Many were recently transfixed by Boris Johnson’s appearance at the Commons Committee of Privileges following allegations of his misleading parliament over Partygate. The committee is yet to deliver its report, but this could ultimately result in the former prime minister being removed as an MP

This episode refocused the nation on Johnson’s often contested relationship with the truth. It had particular resonance because Partygate brings back painful memories for many of us, of a time when we couldn’t gather with friends and family for occasions such as weddings and funerals, let alone with colleagues at work. Pandemic restrictions directly touched all our lives.

In contrast, the complex and lengthy debates over Brexit affected few of us personally. The intricacies of the negotiations, and seemingly endless arguments in parliament about implementing the 2016 referendum result, indeed caused many simply to switch off. But, as explored in my recent book with Lisa James, The Parliamentary Battle over Brexit, examination of this period often finds Johnson at the centre—and displaying even more troubling behaviours. We didn’t set out to write a book about Boris Johnson, but he is unavoidably present at every stage of the Brexit story. His duplicity throughout caused more lasting and tangible damage than that over the parties in Number 10.

Some early flashpoints over Brexit have already received significant attention. Johnson famously drafted two Telegraph columns taking opposing positions before deciding which side to support in the referendum, and his backing of Vote Leave surprised and disappointed David Cameron. Arguments over the truthfulness of claims on the Brexit battlebus are also well-rehearsed. But neither of these familiar and disputed episodes is essential to the case.

 After the referendum, Johnson was widely expected to replace Cameron as Conservative leader. However, his campaign imploded when Michael Gove denounced him as unfit for office. Instead, Theresa May became prime minister, and Johnson a constant thorn in her side.

Initially appointed May’s foreign secretary after the referendum, Johnson made frequent unhelpful interventions, often around the time of party conferences. For example in September 2017, a Telegraph column set out his “bold vision” for Brexit, which went well beyond his policy brief and was seen as a veiled leadership bid. The following summer he resigned from the Cabinet, following on the heels of May’s Brexit secretary David Davis, over her “Chequers” proposals. His biographer Tom Bower suggests that a key consideration—rather than necessarily the principle of Brexit—was Johnson’s fear that Davis would gain the support of Brexiteers in any future leadership contest.

May eventually agreed a Brexit deal with the EU after many months of negotiation, particularly focused on avoiding border problems for Northern Ireland. When this was put to the House of Commons, Johnson was the first Conservative backbencher on his feet and denounced it as “a national humiliation that makes a mockery of Brexit”. His voice was influential, and was followed by many other Conservative critics. The deal was defeated by a whopping 432 votes to 202, with Johnson among the 118 Conservative rebels voting against it. This pattern repeated two months later, in March 2019, when he was one of 75 Conservative MPs to reject the deal. 

When May responded by publicly denouncing parliament’s intransigence, Johnson again took to the pages of the Telegraph to criticise her in the strongest terms. In an article titled “Theresa May is a Chicken Who’s Bottled Brexit”, he argued that it was “wrong in every sense to blame MPs for blocking Brexit”.

These interventions, and the repeat rejections of her deal, helped erode and ultimately destroy May’s premiership. In the contest to replace her, it was Dominic Raab who publicly floated the idea of proroguing parliament potentially to force through a no-deal Brexit. He had promised this to the hardline Eurosceptic ERG in hopes of winning their votes, but they ultimately chose to back Boris Johnson. Johnson had almost certainly given the same assurances, but publicly claimed not to be “attracted” to the idea. Having won the premiership, he then proposed a five-week prorogation, later overturned in the Supreme Court. While claiming at the time that this was nothing to do with Brexit, his aides later admitted the obvious: that it was.

But the most fundamental falsehood related to Johnson’s eventual Brexit deal, negotiated in haste when it became clear that parliament would not permit a no-deal outcome. Having publicly assured the Northern Ireland DUP that “no British Conservative government could or should” sign a deal with the EU which put a trade border down the Irish Sea, Johnson went on to do exactly that. In effect, he agreed a deal that Theresa May had rejected, precisely to avoid such border problems. ERG hardliners were dismayed by the Northern Ireland provisions, but by then feared that Brexit might otherwise be lost. Crucially Mark Francois, now ERG chair, recounts Johnson’s private promises to the group that if they voted for the deal he would subsequently reopen it.

Notwithstanding these clear disagreements, Johnson sold his package during the 2019 general election campaign as “oven ready”. He roundly rejected claims that it would create a trade border in the Irish Sea. These were the foundations upon which Johnson’s electoral mandate was built. In a direct reversal of his previous position, his campaign was fought on a manifesto suggesting that the country had been “paralysed by a broken parliament” and which criticised MPs for “thwarting” Brexit. Johnson therefore claimed—notwithstanding his own rebellions on May’s deal—to be the man to “get Brexit done”.

British politics has continued to have to live with the consequences of these various falsehoods. Most obviously, the DUP has refused to enter power-sharing arrangements at Stormont until the Brexit deal is changed, and Northern Ireland continues to be without a government. This is despite Rishi Sunak’s careful negotiation of the Windsor framework (which Johnson notably voted against). More broadly, the UK’s key institutions—including parliament and the courts—have yet to recover from the attacks that they suffered during the Brexit period.

The story of Johnson and Brexit has rarely been fully told. It is clearly awkward for Conservatives, who understandably prefer to move on. Brexit in general is also too awkward for Labour to have felt able to expose Johnson’s behaviour. But while his dishonesty over Partygate is serious—really serious—the legacy of his dishonesty over Brexit goes far deeper.