The trial of the trial of Boris Johnson
The Daily Mail's attempts to paint the lame duck PM as the victim of a stitch-up are truly embarrassing.
When Boris Johnson announced he would eventually resign as Prime Minister, one of three media reactions I predicted was “the building of a betrayal myth”1. And that’s what The Daily Mail has been engaged in ever since. The sound of hammering from Northcliffe House is now deafening; a vast cross has burst through the roof.
Yesterday’s front page — Tories ‘must quit Boris Johnson witch hunt’ — was the latest instalment in the Mail’s ongoing Enemies of the People part-work series. Those are load-bearing inverted commas, which allow the paper to align itself with Nadine Dorries’ words while pretending it’s merely reporting what “people are saying”.
The dominant voices in the story calling the investigation by the Commons privileges committee into whether Johnson misled Parliament over Partygate a “kangaroo court” and “a witch hunt” are Lord Goldsmith (ennobled by Boris Johnson) and Dorries (waiting to be paid back in Johnson’s resignation honours). It’s a dispatch from an alternate reality in which a majority Tory committee is “rigged”.
As with the ‘Enemies of the People’ story — which attempted to frame three High Court Judges as dangerous Mavericks (memorably describing one as an “openly-gay ex-Olympic fencer”) — the ‘witch hunt’ line tries to cast four Conservative MPs as anti-establishment rebels. To do that, the Mail gives them labels (“The Grandee”, “The Magistrate”, “The Solicitor” and… uh… “The Rishi Supporter”) as though an accountant was accidentally tasked with setting up a Reservoir Dogs-style gang.
Laura Farris2 aka The Rishi Supporter (“Hey, why am I ‘The Rishi Supporter’? Can’t I be ‘The Barrister’?” “No, ‘The Barrister’ is on another job.”) stepped down from the committee last month but the Mail didn’t know because it failed to contact her. The Magistrate — Andy Carter, Conservative MP for Warrington South — hasn’t publicly criticised Johnson, which was tremendously disappointing for the paper.
In the pen portrait of The Grandee, quotes from an interview that Sir Bernard Jenkin — then a Boris Johnson supporter — gave to The House magazine when he became chair of the Liaison Committee in 2020 are framed as if they’re recent:
Sir Bernard also chaired a humiliating session of the Liaison Committee, where he allowed a Labour MP to announce the resignation of members of Mr Johnson's Government on live television as they happened.
Ahead of his appearance, Sir Bernard said that the PM should not expect an 'easy ride' and said he wouldn't be 'pulling his punches'.
The final Tory member of the committee, The Solicitor (Alberto Costa), is guilty of the greatest crime in the eyes of the Mail; he was a remainer and has a ‘foreign’ name. The damning quotes it finds to prove he’s dangerously biased against Johnson could have been muttered unconvincingly by either of the Tory leadership candidates:
It’s imperative the next leader of the party, and the next PM, places standards and integrity at the core of government… [there has been a] breakdown in good governance [and] standards must improve.
That’s rhetoric so empty that it rattles when it walks but even that is too much for the Mail which wants to present Johnson as a wronged man. In an accompanying comment piece, Daniel Johnson (no relation), the headbanging founding editor of the now-defunct libertarian wank mag Standpoint, howled:
Nothing offends the British notion of fair play more grievously than kicking a man when he is down.
That’s Boris Johnson, a man so down that he was caught on camera this weekend resembling the Man from Del Monte after a month-long binge, swaying along to Sweet Caroline at yet another party to celebrate his wedding. The same Boris Johnson who has been treating his final weeks as Prime Minister like a prolonged Make A Wish trip after he was diagnosed with terminal dishonesty.
Daniel Johnson’s tantrum fails to mention that the committee’s investigation was voted for by MPs — including many more on the Conservative benches — and that Harriet Harman, its chair, was also voted in. Instead, high on a powerful combination of hyperbole and his own gases, he writes:
… this so-called inquiry has no intention of giving Boris Johnson a fair trial.
It has more in common with the witch-hunts of Salem or the show trials of Stalin's Soviet Union.
The paper’s leader column was equally over-excited (“…a witch-hunt… a kangaroo court… naked vengeance!”) but it seems practically reserved compared to the red-faced fury of part-time Floridian and full-time fiction writer Richard ‘Dick’ Littlejohn.
Smashing together a reference to Jeremy Thorpe — he’s nothing if not contemporary — and a misunderstood Shakespeare quote, Littlejohn writes:
In a complete reversal of the Thorpe trial, the modern Establishment comes not to praise a former party leader, but to bury him. Once again, the verdict has been decided in advance. Boris is guilty as charged and must be dragged off to the Tower and hanged by the neck until dead.
If Boris Johnson is found guilty of misleading parliament, if he faces a recall petition, if he stands in the ensuing by-election and if he loses — there are more ifs than an overly indulgent draft of Kipling — he’ll still be a former Prime Minister with all the earning opportunities that brings, as well as fame, and lots of friends in the media. It’s not a fate worse than death, it’s a life he doesn’t remotely deserve.
If — there’s another one — Littlejohn really believed that Boris Johnson is “history”, he and the Mail more generally wouldn’t be remotely bothered by the inquiry. They’d let it play out and focus on pushing for Liz Truss to be the next Prime Minister. But instead, the full weight of the Mail machine is behind building the betrayal myth.
It’s an exercise that leads to ludicrous passages like the one in today’s attempt to paint Jenkin as Robespierre in a Saville Row suit, which reports with affected dudgeon:
According to the book, Summer Madness, Sir Bernard called Mr Johnson ‘dishonest’ and a ‘philanderer’.
Water observed to be wet; sky found to be blue; Pope discovered to favour humourous headwear, and bears noticed defecating in leafy surroundings.
The Daily Mail should be embarrassed but like the man it is so vigorously defending, it is constitutionally incapable of experiencing shame.
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The other two were framing Johnson as an aberration and defining him as “a brilliant man laid low by tragic flaws”.
The MP for Newbury, whose father and uncle were also both Conservative MPs.