Kier Starmer may have set the stage for Boris Johnson's political comeback, Gwynne Dyer writes.
Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the Global Soft Power Summit on Thursday at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London. Credit: Jonathan Brady / PA via AP

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At first, it just looked like dumb luck.

Less than a year after he was driven from office by his own party, former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was getting his final comeuppance. The cross-party Privileges Committee that was created to determine whether he had lied to Parliament issued its report last week, and it was dire.

In essence, it said that Johnson must have known about the more-frequent-than-weekly drinking parties held by his personal staff to celebrate birthdays, people leaving or simply the fact that it was Friday, because:

a) It was all happening in his own rather large 17th-century residence in Downing Street (British prime ministers live above the shop);

b) There were many personal reports that Johnson himself took part in these events; and

c) He was actually fined by the police for breaking the rules against large social gatherings that were in force during those early COVID times.

The crime was not drinking alcohol, which was never banned. It was getting together in groups at a time when ordinary people were obliged to avoid such groups, not even visiting hospitals to say farewell to dying parents.

Such contempt for ordinary people was damaging the Tory (Conservative Party) brand, as was Johnson’s general incompetence and fecklessness, so eventually the Tories themselves ditched him. But the party is already on his second replacement as prime minister (Rishi Sunak), and Johnson is still hanging around hoping to make a comeback.

The best way to scotch that possibility is the Privileges Committee, because if it finds him guilty of lying to Parliament it can recommend that he be suspended or even expelled from Parliament. That would end his come-back hopes — but there was a last-minute hitch.

Sue Gray is a senior career civil servant who was working in the prime minister’s office as “ethics adviser,” so she was the obvious choice to conduct an inquiry into the allegations of drunken parties in Downing Street. She did so, and indirectly criticized the prime minister for “failures of leadership and judgment.”

There was also the police inquiry, and the formation of the Parliamentary Committee, and above all the revolt by Johnson’s own colleagues. Gray’s report could take perhaps 25 percent of the credit for bringing Boris down, but no more.

But last Thursday she announced that she was quitting the civil service and taking a job as chief of staff to Labour Party leader Keir Starmer. Shock and horror throughout Whitehall, and the dominant response was a conviction that this would somehow absolve Johnson of his sins.

As his rather dim-witted wingman Jacob Rees-Mogg put it: “So much for an impartial Civil Service. The Gray Report now looks like a left-wing stitch up against a Tory prime minister.”

I’m a simple, trusting soul, so I went along with the idea that Gray and Starmer had made a big political mistake by letting Johnson wriggle off the hook like that. Gray’s move didn’t really discredit the evidence at all, but you know how people think.

However, my wife Tina Machiavelli — “Tina Viljoen” to the rest of the world — took a quite different tack. She immediately asked: Why would Starmer and Gray deliberately schedule the latter’s resignation for the precise week when the Parliamentary Privilege Committee would be releasing its report?

It’s almost as if they wanted Johnson to hang around as the alternative leader of the Conservative Party. After all, if he’s still in Parliament and not facing expulsion, all he needs is one serious stumble by Sunak and he launches his comeback bid. But he’s even more likely to lose the election next year than Sunak is.

Alternatively, the Tories lose the election without Johnson, and the broken and decimated party turns to him afterward to save it. But half the surviving Tory members of Parliament would still blame Johnson for the destruction of the brand, so he would probably just split the party instead.

Johnson would soon get bored with being opposition leader and go back to making big money on the speaker’s circuit. His breakaway faction would crumble, and what’s left of the party would spend the next decade in the wilderness.

That may not all happen. From Starmer’s and Gray’s point of view, however, what’s not to like?

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Gwynne Dyer, Opinion columnist

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.