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Boris and Brexit return: but has Westminster moved on?

Palace of Westminster
Public Affairs

Parliament went back to the future yesterday, with MPs debating the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland and interrogating lockdown parties in No.10.

A year ago, these would both have been moments of high emotion and drama, with Westminster glued to newsfeeds for ministerial resignations and shouting matches in the division lobbies. 

Strikingly, however, both the Conservatives and Labour were keen to treat them as sideshows with actors whose time in the spotlight had come and gone.

While Boris Johnson prepared for his marathon evidence session before the Privileges Committee, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer used PMQs to push Rishi Sunak on the failings of the Metropolitan Police following Dame Louise Casey’s damning report. Starmer and his shadow cabinet feel on strong ground talking about tackling crime, setting it as one of their five missions as they look towards the next election.

For his part, Sunak has his own five priorities, focussed on the economy, the NHS and small boats. Like Johnson he backed Brexit, so doesn’t feel he has to overcompensate in the same way as his Remain-backing predecessors Theresa May and Liz Truss. And after yesterday’s vote on the Windsor Framework, he can – unlike all three of those predecessors –  point to having delivered an agreement with the EU to the Northern Ireland Protocol that the Commons backed overwhelmingly (unlike May) and that doesn’t involve breaking international law (unlike Johnson and Truss). 

Therefore, talking about Brexit and Boris serves neither man much. Both political boxers would rather look forward to the next fight, rather than worry about the former champ.

Johnson still believes he has a route back to the ring, however. His performance – though bullish and at times frustrated – was far from the seat-of-the-pants knock-about sessions he put in countless times over his years as Foreign Secretary or as Prime Minister. This was serious. The seven members of the Privileges Committee hold his future in their hands and he knows it. If they find that he knowingly or recklessly misled the House of Commons, they can recommend a suspension that – 10 days or more – would trigger a recall petition of his constituents, who in turn could boot him out as an MP and force a by-election. 

As if to underline how much politics had moved on since Partygate, the session was adjourned to allow MPs to vote to approve Sunak’s Northern Ireland deal, which they did by 515-29. But whereas Johnson used to lead his MPs through the division lobbies, he now found himself surrounded in the opposite lobby to the government, with just 21 other Conservative MPs for company alongside the DUP. 

Johnson has built his career on proving his doubters wrong, though, and for as long as he sees a slim route back to No.10 he will dig in and fight. And for all Sunak can feel relieved at having got through a potentially tricky day (in which he even managed to slip out his long-awaited tax return without attracting too much attention), as long as Johnson remains an MP, he remains a threat. Last October’s leadership race showed that with the wind behind him he can still attract a substantial following among MPs and the wider party membership. 

But for now at least, both Sunak and Starmer will feel they can focus more of their attention on keeping the other out of No.10 than worrying about its former tenant.