No eye-rolls, no gesticulations: Inside Boris Johnson’s preparations for partygate grilling

Boris Johnson at a gathering in 10 Downing Street, with alcohol on a table, on Nov 13, 2020, during the second lockdown
Boris Johnson at a gathering in 10 Downing Street, with alcohol on a table, on Nov 13, 2020, during the second lockdown

If political danger can be measured in the hours of preparation dedicated to a given event, then Boris Johnson is all too aware of what is riding on Wednesday’s partygate hearing.

The former prime minister likes to project a flying by the seat of his pants image, all ruffled hair and quick wit. But the opposite has been true for this 2pm privileges committee session.

Behind the scenes, some of the country’s most renowned lawyers – at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds to the taxpayer – have been putting Mr Johnson through his paces.

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The early work by Team Boris since he left office last September focused on battling the committee’s remit, questioning its approach and fighting over terms.

But in recent weeks, a more singular focus has come into view – making sure he survives what they see as a seven-member firing squad awaiting him on Wednesday.

According to one internal estimate, Mr Johnson has spent between 20 and 30 hours with lawyers and advisers, practicing how to counter the questions expected to come his way.

Some of the sessions have been held at the offices of Peters & Peters, the high-powered and high-paid firm of solicitors representing the MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip.


Others have been conducted over video call, for the ease of participants. Mr Johnson’s post-Downing Street life has seen him fly overseas for highly-paid speaking gigs.

At the heart of the Johnson strategy is an attempt to land the nuances, to get beyond the singular partygate scandal that has built up in the public mind and unpack what he knew, when, and why.

One point that will be stressed in his defence is that he was not present at the most egregious lockdown-breaking moments, with the worst excesses carried out by others late at night away from his gaze.

Another will be that, at farewell events he did attend, he was often only there for a matter of minutes and usually less than half an hour. Plus he was only fined for attendance at one event, a tame midday birthday celebration.


Others will focus on the core issue: his denials to MPs. The finger will be pointed at senior Downing Street advisers and the assurances they gave that no rules had been broken.

It is the specifics of the case – and, for Mr Johnson’s team, what they see as the critical lack of evidence proving he was told rules had been broken before denying that to the Commons – that has been front and centre in prep.

But how it is presented is important too – as the former prime minister, considered by some colleagues to be the finest Tory campaigner of his generation, is said to be all too aware.

The Telegraph understands that, in the preparation sessions, there has been discussion about how he should come across in the chair when the seven MPs fire their questions.


“Respectful, reasonable and precise” have become the watchwords, despite private frustrations about what Johnson allies fear could become a “McCarthyite show trial”.

The committee was tasked with its investigation by the Commons approaching a year ago, giving it a standing towards which Mr Johnson is expected to nod.

His demeanour, too, is said to have been a point of discussion in the preparations. Eye-rolls, gesticulations with the hands and other signals of exasperation have been discouraged.

The calming influence of Lord Pannick KC, an esteemed barrister, is expected to be by the former prime minister’s side. The peer cannot give evidence directly to the committee – protests from the Johnson camp for the contrary came to nothing – but, if present, he can advise his client.


But the senior solicitors at Peters & Peters, the ones who have the contract for Mr Johnson’s defence, are said to be playing the more central role in preparatory discussions.

The calm Team Boris hope will be projected throughout the session, which is expected to last for between two and four hours, will be tested by the MPs.

The privileges committee’s seven members – four Conservative MPs, two from Labour and one from the SNP – have been devising their own strategy for who asks what.

The committee has its own senior silk, Sir Ernest Ryder, a former Court of Appeal judge whose impartial legal advice has helped shape their partygate inquiry.


Harriet Harman, the Labour grandee who Mr Johnson likes to call “Hattie”, is due to give an opening statement, as will the former prime minister.

Each of the six other MPs has been given particular sections of questioning on which to lead, echoing the approach often taken for ministerial appearances at committee hearings.

In the end, it is those seven who will decide. If they agree that MPs were misled and recommend a suspension from the Commons of 10 or more days, the threat to Mr Johnson’s parliamentary career is very real.

Should MPs vote through such a suspension – and Rishi Sunak has made clear he will not stand in their way, promising a free vote – then a by-election can be triggered in Mr Johnson’s seat.

Suddenly, the focus for him would turn from mulling over a route back to Downing Street to clinging on in Parliament – hence the hours of preparation before the clock hits 2pm and the cameras roll.