Related Sector: Witness Familiarisation
On 21 April 2022, the House of Commons passed a motion calling for the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to be investigated by the Commons Privileges Committee over Partygate allegations.
The investigation is of course twofold:
- Firstly, whether Boris Johnson misled Parliament in statements that he made in the Commons about alleged breaches of lockdown rules in Downing Street.
- Secondly, whether this misleading of Parliament may have constituted a contempt of Parliament.
On Wednesday 22 March, the committee took evidence from Johnson himself – a live screening that garnered as much interest and intrigue as the Wagatha Christie libel trial. As the hearing took place (over approximately five hours), there was a flurry of news reports commenting on Johnson’s every move – his attitude, his body language, his responses, his reactions, as well as questioning his future in politics. The outcome of this investigation is crucial, as if Johnson is found guilty, MPs could hand him a suspension, which in turn could give constituents the opportunity to remove him as their MP in a by-election.
As the UK’s leading provider of Witness Familiarisation training, we at Bond Solon watched the live screening with interest, concentrating specifically on Johnson’s ‘performance’ as a witness, and the potentially detrimental impact it could have on the investigation.
Read on for an analysis of the key elements of Johnson’s performance.
Prior to giving evidence
As the Chair, Harriet Harman KC gave her opening speech, Johnson should have known that his reactions and body language would be closely observed (and noted), not just by the rest of the Committee but by the wider public watching the hearing as well.
Yet, he is sat, facing the committee, hunched over his desk, hands in front, often fisted, in an almost threatening stance. A few times, he was caught looking at his watch as if he had got somewhere else to be, as if this wasn’t important to him. And then before giving his speech, he dared to inform the Committee about the forthcoming vote, which of course, as MPs, they would have been more than aware of.
While Johnson’s attitude should not or will not have any bearing on the conclusions formed by the Committee (it is his answers that matter), in relation to the specific questions raised by the investigation, this will have done him no favours. At Bond Solon, we remind witnesses to remain conscious of their own body language and reactions throughout the duration of hearing, even when they are not on the stand.
Johnson proceeded to give his opening speech, setting out the facts surrounding the investigation and his position.
While doing so he continued his slouched stance, eyes barely looking up from the piece of paper in his hands. There were several occasions where he mentioned the Chair in his speech, yet neglected to address her in person, opting instead to fix his eyes on the paper before him.
One of our top tips for witnesses who attend our training, is to face the decision maker(s) when speaking, when answering questions, and generally giving evidence. Not only does this project a confident, assured image but it also enables the witness to observe the decision maker(s)’s reaction and gauge whether their point has been understood.
It’s fair to say that for the most part, Boris Johnson did not respond well to being questioned or challenged. This was clearly visible in his tone of voice, his body language, and the way he interacted with the Committee. Key features of this are as follows:
- The raising of his voice, in obvious frustration and sometimes anger.
- The sharp nodding of his head and hand gestures.
- Interrupting and talking over members of the Committee.
- Giving long winded answers, that don’t address the question asked, even when a succinct answer is explicitly requested.
- A considerable amount of repetition.
- Sarcastic, often defensive comments.
- His growing impatience and anxious facial expressions.
Whilst the Committee will have placed more emphasis on the content of what was said rather that how he might have said it, it was clear that Johnson’s attitude presented an obstacle to the Committee establishing the concrete facts of the matter.
It is also worth noting that whilst the Committee themselves were irritated by Johnson’s unhelpful approach to questioning, they remained calm and considered throughout.
At this stage, it is impossible to speculate on the conclusions that the Committee might draw. But purely from looking at Boris Johnson’s performance as a witness, he did not make a very credible one.
Giving evidence can be a daunting and nerve-wracking prospect, particularly in a lengthy hearing like this one. Questioning can cripple even a reliable and intelligent witness if they have not been properly trained, or if they let their own emotions take over.
Bond Solon’s witness familiarisation training focuses on techniques and exercises to build confidence, allay any concerns a witness may have, and ultimately improve a witness’ performance. It does not try to change the facts or truth or rewrite the evidence. Instead, it teaches witnesses what to expect during the process of giving evidence and how to effectively deal with cross-examination.
It is not known (although it appears highly unlikely) whether Boris Johnson had any form of witness training. If he had attended Bond Solon's witness familiarisation training, it would have dealt with the importance of giving succinct, concise evidence, and making concessions where appropriate—two of the criticisms made by the Committee during the hearing on Wednesday.
To find out more about this course, and our Witness Familiarisation services, contact us on +44 (0)20 7549 2549 or at email@example.com.