On 15 June 2023 the Privileges Committee released the report from its inquiry into former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
This explainer sets out the role of the parliamentary Committee of Privileges and explains why it conducted an inquiry into Boris Johnson.
It also considers the verdict reached by the committee and how Johnson has reacted.
What is the Privileges Committee?
The Committee of Privileges is the House of Commons select committee appointed to conduct inquiries into issues related to parliamentary privilege. The committee investigates when there may have been a breach of privilege or a contempt of privilege.
“A ‘contempt of privilege’ is any act (or failure to act) that ‘may prevent or hinder the work of either House of Parliament’.”
Parliamentary privilege refers in part to the legal exemptions that MPs have in certain areas that ensure they can perform their roles effectively. For example, MPs are immune from defamation laws when speaking in Parliament so that they can speak freely. It also refers to the right of Parliament to regulate its own affairs.
A ‘contempt of privilege’ is any act (or failure to act) that ‘may prevent or hinder the work of either House of Parliament’.
In 2019, for example, the committee found that Dominic Cummings had committed a contempt by refusing to attend and give evidence to an inquiry being conducted by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
Erskine May – the guide to parliamentary procedure – states that the ‘Commons may treat the making of a deliberately misleading statement as a contempt’.
How does the Committee of Privileges differ from the Committee on Standards?
The Committee of Privileges should not be confused with the related Committee on Standards, despite the two having the same Chair and MP membership. The Standards Committee was split from the Privileges Committee in 2013 to allow for members of the public – referred to as ‘lay members’ – to sit on it. It therefore has more members than the Privileges Committee.
The Standards Committee is responsible for the MPs’ Code of Conduct and overseeing the work of the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner. The inclusion of members of the public on the committee means that no party has a majority.
The Privileges Committee, on the other hand, investigates matters related to parliamentary privilege when they are referred to it by the whole House, and its members are all MPs. The Privileges Committee has seven members: four Conservative, two Labour, and one SNP. It has a Conservative majority, reflecting the make-up of the House of Commons more broadly. However, the Commons’ rules state that the committee must have a chair from the official opposition.
Why did the Privileges Committee investigate whether Boris Johnson misled Parliament?
On 21 April 2022, the conduct of then Prime Minister Boris Johnson was referred to the Privileges Committee by the House of Commons for investigation.
The Resolution passed by the Commons referring the matter to the committee authorised it to investigate whether the Prime Minister’s statements in the Commons relating to ‘partygate’ misled the House and, if so, whether his conduct amounted to a contempt (in other words, if it inhibited the functioning of Parliament).
The Resolution identified several statements as potentially misleading considering the fixed penalty notices that were handed out by the police for gatherings in No.10 and the Cabinet Office that broke Covid-19 rules. These included Johnson’s answers at Prime Minister’s Questions in December 2021 that ‘all guidance was followed in No.10’ and that ‘I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken’.
The committee has made clear, however, that it was ‘not conducting an investigation into “partygate” or the culture and behaviour of No. 10 and officials who worked there over the relevant period’.
The run-up to the report
On Friday 9 June, the week before the report was set to be released, Johnson released a public statement announcing his resignation as an MP.
In the statement he also revealed that he had received a letter from the Privileges Committee on their provisional findings. He went on to heavily criticise the Committee, by claiming that they intended to ‘drive him out of Parliament’ despite no ‘shred of evidence’ that he ‘knowingly or recklessly misled the Commons’.
Many of his allies also came out to criticise the committee.
However, Michael Gove has defended the committee from Johnson’s accusations by stating that he did not believe it to be a ‘kangaroo court’.
What were the conclusions of the Privileges Committee report?
The Privileges Committee released its final report on 15 June.
The Committee found Johnson to have committed five different contempts:
(a) He deliberately misled the House
(b) He deliberately misled the Committee
(c) He breached confidence
(d) He impugned the Committee and thereby undermined the democratic process of the House
(e) He was complicit in the campaign of abuse and attempted intimidation of the Committee.
Only (a) the first contempt, relates to whether Johnson misled Parliament, which is on what the Committee had initially set out to reach a conclusion. For this first contempt, the report finds that Johnson was aware of the Covid rules and guidance and also knew about the lockdown breaches that occurred in No. 10. Therefore, the committee judged him to have misled the House on multiple occasions when questioned about No. 10’s compliance with Covid restrictions.
The other contempts of the House, do not relate to him directly misleading the House, but his conduct during the inquiry which have obstructed or impeded the House in the performance of its functions.
“The Privileges Committee does not have the power to remove an MP from Parliament.”
Contempt (b), which states that he ‘deliberately mislead the Committee’ relates to Johnson’s conduct during his questioning by the committee on 23 March. It accuses him of trying to mislead the committee by claiming that he would supply the committee with further information about an adviser who he claimed gave him assurances no rules had been broken but then failed to do so. Furthermore, the committee believed that Johnson was misleading them with his claims that when he said in the Commons that he had been ‘repeatedly’ assured of No. 10 compliance with Covid rules, he really only meant ‘on more than one occasion’.
Contempts (c)-(e) all relate to Johnson’s public statement the week before the final report was set to be released.
Johnson was found to have (c) ‘breached confidence’, as in the statement, he revealed contents of the confidential letter sent that the committee had sent to Johnson, which contained extracts from the draft report.
The committee also stated that Johnson (d) ‘Impugned the Committee and thereby undermined the democratic process of the House’ on account of his various accusations against the committee in his statement. The report cites remarks such as his description of the inquiry as an ‘absurd and unjust process’ and a ‘kangaroo court’, as well as accusing the committee of ‘egregious bias’ and being a ‘political hit job’.
Finally, the report concludes that Johnson (e) ‘was complicit in the campaign of abuse and attempted intimidation of the Committee’. It is stated that although Johnson had previously distanced himself from abusive language against the committee, the terms used in his statement, such as ‘kangaroo court’ and ‘witch hunt’ were the same as those that had previously been used against committee members.
What are the powers of the committee?
The Privileges Committee does not have the power to remove an MP from Parliament.
However, if it determines that an MP has mislead Parliament and that their actions constituted a contempt (because they prevented or hindered the work of Parliament) it may recommend that they be suspended from the House of Commons for a period.
These are only ‘recommended’ sanctions however, as it is then up to the Commons itself to decide whether to endorse the committee’s recommendation.
In the case of Johnson, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has previously confirmed that Conservative MPs would be given a ‘free vote’ on whether to accept the findings of the committee or not, meaning they would not be told which way to vote on the matter.
If a suspension of 10 sitting days, 14 calendar days, or more is agreed then it would engage the Recall of MPs Act 2015. Under the Act, if a suspension of this length of time takes place, then a recall petition must be opened. A by-election is then triggered if 10% or more registered voters in the MP’s constituency sign the petition. The incumbent MP may contest their seat in the by-election that follows, alongside any other candidates that may run.
What sanctions did the committee recommend?
Reports had suggested that the committee was planning on recommending a suspension of 10 days or more, which could have potentially triggered a by-election in Johnson’s seat if the sanction was agreed by the House and 10% of his constituents voted for a by-election.
However, after Johnson’s public statement the week before the report was published, which the committee believes to have constituted three more ‘contempts’, the report says that it would have recommended suspending him from Parliament for 90 days if he had not resigned.
“Former Prime Minister Theresa May urged all members of the house to vote for the motion”
Because of Johnson’s resignation, the suspension would not impact him. Indeed, now that he has resigned, if he ran again for Parliament and was elected as an MP again, then ‘the slate is wiped clean and he is treated as a totally new person’ according to Institute for Government director Hannah White.
The report also recommends a further sanction, which would impact him, namely that he should be refused the pass which allows former MPs access to the Westminster estate.
Was there a vote in the House of Commons and what happened?
After the Committee released its final report, Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the Commons, confirmed to MPs a free vote would be held on 19 June on a motion on whether to accept the Privileges Committee report and its recommendations.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak did not attend or vote in the debate in the Commons, having previously said that he did not ‘want to influence anyone’.
During the debate in the Commons, there were notable speeches from some Conservative MPs in support of the Committee’s report.
Former Prime Minister Theresa May urged all members of the house to vote for the motion, asserting that the vote was critical to maintain the ‘bond of trust and respect between the public and Parliament’ and in order for the Conservative party to show that it was prepared to act when one of its own transgresses the rules.
Andrea Leadsom, former leader of the House of Commons, also defended the committee and its processes, arguing that ‘it cannot reasonably be accused of political bias’ on account of its majority of government members. She also challenged those who have sought to ‘rewrite the process at the eleventh hour’ because ‘they do not like the conclusions.’
“The Labour Party used a parliamentary procedure to force a vote.”
Labour MP and chair of the Privileges Committee Harriet Harman stressed the importance of the House supporting the motion in order to show that the ‘government will be accountable’, ‘ministers will be honest’ and that ‘there is no impunity for wrongdoing’.
In response to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s suggestion that Harriet Harman could have been perceived as biased on account of her previous tweets, Harman reminded the house that she had offered to step aside but was told by the government to continue in her role.
During the debate, some Conservative MPs, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Lia Nici, challenged the report.
Rees-Mogg argued that the Committee’s finding that Johnson was ‘complicit in the campaign of abuse and attempted intimidation of the Committee’ lacked any evidence and unreasonably interpreted Johnson’s thoughts when concluding that he ‘knowingly’ misled Parliament.
Furthermore, he called the recommendation to not allow Johnson a parliamentary pass as ‘vindictive’. This was echoed by Lia Nici who suggested that the Committee was not ‘impartial’ and rather an opportunity taken by the Opposition to get ‘a formidable opponent out of their way’.
A lack of opposition to the report’s findings could have meant that the report was nodded through without a formal vote; however, the Labour Party used a parliamentary procedure to force a vote.
A huge majority supported the findings of the report. 357 MPs- including 118 Conservatives – (including eight cabinet ministers) – voted for the report, 7 voted against, and 225 MPs abstained or did not attend the vote.
Johnson has already resigned so the vote is mainly seen as a way to express an opinion on the fairness of Committee’s processes and procedures. This would also follow the precedent of the Owen Paterson case, where Parliament voted on the recommended sanction from, in that case, the Committee on Standards, despite the fact Paterson had already resigned.
However, the vote in favour of the report does confirm that Johnson will lose his right to a parliamentary pass.
What happens now?
By-elections will be held on July 20 for Boris Johnson’s former seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip and that of his ally Nigel Adams, Selby and Ainsty, who resigned less than 24 hours after Johnson.
There is still uncertainty around whether Nadine Dorries will resign as an MP. Despite announcing her intention to do so on the morning of Johnson’s resignation, she has since delayed this decision until she receives further information about why her peerage nomination to the House of Lords was blocked.
On 29 June, the committee took the unusual step of publishing what it referred to as a ‘special supplementary’ report entitled ‘Co-ordinated campaign of interference in the work of the Privileges Committee’. It detailed the committee’s concerns about the way in which improper pressure had been brought to bear on its members throughout the inquiry, reiterating the importance for democracy of the committee being able to conduct its inquiries unimpeded.
An annex to the report detailed listed examples of the behaviour the committee found most egregious. The list named former ministers Nadine Dorries, Priti Patel and Jacob Rees-Mogg, as well as environment minister Lord (Zac) Goldsmith. Goldsmith subsequently resigned from the government.
The committee recommended that the House of Commons agree a Resolution noting the follow-up report and that, in future, to engage in behaviour impugning, lobbying or intimidating the committee could constitute a contempt as it undermines the work of the House.
A vote on the report is scheduled for 10 July. The government has indicated that this will be a free vote.
By Peter Jurkovic, Researcher, and Alex Walker, Research and Communications Officer, UK in a Changing Europe.