Has Boris Johnson finally his match? It may be coincidence, or it may betray something deep in the personality of our former prime minister, but one cannot help but notice that his current twin nemeses are intelligent, strong-willed women possessed of a certain authority and depth of experience, who, frankly, are more than capable of taking the old scoundrel on.
The one in the news now is Baroness Heather Hallett, senior judge and chair of the Covid inquiry, who rightly wants to see all his messages, diary entries and other documents, the better to pursue the truth about the government’s (in other words, Johnson’s) response to the pandemic.
She has the power, granted to her by parliament, to demand that the Cabinet Office, No 10 and anyone else hand over what she wants to see – no ifs, no buts, no exceptions, no squirming.
So who is the grandee taking on the blond bombshell in this O.K. Corral style showdown?
Hallett, 73, comes from relatively humble stock. Her father was a highly successful police officer in the Hampshire force, having spent the war flying agents behind enemy lines. He ended up as an assistant chief constable – and Hallett’s early interest in the law was stimulated by her dad’s library of books on crime and punishment, both factual and fictional. Both parents encouraged Hallett to believe that she could do anything a man could. Her mother, a secretary, refused to teach young Heather to touch-type, lest it left her marooned in the typing pool one day.
Hallett’s background is therefore neither posh nor establishment; she is one of that generation of children who could take full advantage of a full, free education from a state grammar school. I dare say she would probably be comfortable to identify as a feminist. She was the first in her family to go to Oxford, which she says she chose because it “sounded glamorous”.
She became a formidable force in the law, rising to the top via the criminal bar at a time when the profession was even more of a bastion of male chauvinism than it is now. Early in her career, she was sexually propositioned by more senior men, including one judge who, in a break in a trial she was acting in, invited her to his room and volunteered to father a child with her.
Hallett is one of the legal talents chosen to take on the toughest of assignments, including child abuse cases and the inquiries into the 7/7 bombings, as well as the effective pardons granted to terrorists during the Northern Ireland peace process.
Magisterially, Hallett has reminded those concerned that refusing to cooperate is a criminal offence. So, far from betraying Johnson (as he sometimes suggests they are), his old colleagues in the Cabinet Office are actually trying to stonewall the redoubtable baroness – to no avail. Obliged by the civil service code to report potential criminal wrongdoing, they’ve already had to send elements of the official chronicle of Johnson’s frolicking at Chequers to the police.
Johnson is therefore right to be fearful. There may well be some severe embarrassment in store for him when Hallett eventually comes to publish. Aside from that, there is also the possibility that damaging, not to say salacious, details may leak in the meantime, as they tend to. Given what we know about Johnson’s proclivities, we cannot be sure that he spent all of his time at Chequers exploring the first editions in the library, or collecting butterflies. Johnson has pleaded with Hallett to delay her work until he has hired some lawyers he feels are more sympathetic to his cause than the government-appointed ones who dobbed him in (as he sees it). The baroness has dismissed his whingeing. One wonders if he has something to hide.
That reckoning, though, is perhaps years away. Of more immediate concern to Johnson is another “HH” figure, who holds his rapidly evaporating hopes of a comeback in her firm, impartial hands – Harriet Harman KC, a year younger than Hallett and another pioneering feminist. A veteran Labour MP, former cabinet minister, and ex-deputy leader of her party, the mother of the House of Commons, now chair of the privileges committee, also refuses to be bamboozled by BoJo.
She was robust when Johnson turned up to her committee and tried to bluster his way out of trouble. She wasn’t impressed and brooked none of his nonsense. Like Hallett, she isn’t charmed or intimidated by Johnson. Neither of them is in the mood to be bullied by this greatly diminished figure, who shrinks a little more each day as the facts about his chaotic premiership seep out.
With no evidence whatsoever, Johnson persists with his risible, Trumpian attempt to portray himself as the victim of some vast establishment conspiracy concocted by the so-called “Blob”. He is also reported to be ready to sue the government, which is surely a purely performative, tactical ploy – and a desperate one.
Johnson is said to believe that he is the victim of a “politically motivated stitch-up”. Utter rot. The fact is that it is Johnson himself who has stitched himself up tighter than a kipper because of the way he behaved and behaves. He is the sole author of his own misfortunes – literally so when his WhatsApp messages and memos come to light. There’s no doubt some will be irrelevant to the coronavirus, but that is for Hallett and her team to establish – it is not for Johnson to say, nor for the Cabinet Office to redact items on his behalf.
Out of office, stripped of power, and with few friends left anywhere, even within his own party, Johnson relies on the remaining fanatical devotees of his cult of personality to sustain what little hope he has of a return to high office. The likes of Priti Patel and Nadine Dorries may still be inexplicably captured by his charms, as indeed are an uncomfortably large proportion of the Tory membership, for whom it seems no crime is serious enough to disqualify Johnson from their affections.
For the rest of us, though, any enthusiasm for him or his cynical Brexit project has long since evaporated. The only good news for Johnson is that, by now, he’s just about lost the capacity to shock us. He surely can't go much lower, even if he ends up being chucked out of parliament. He wrecked his own career through his own arrogance and recklessness. In due course, Hallett and Harman will merely draw attention to such abiding truths.