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16 Jun 2023

Politics and Society

The Privileges Committee’s excoriating criticism of the former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, suggests some parliamentarians at least have decided to draw a line at the cavalier and dismissive way government has treated the institution in recent years. But, argues Jill Rutter, that will only carry weight if the overwhelming majority of MPs are prepared to back the committee.

The Privileges Committee report, issued on 15 June, is a report of two halves.

The first part represents the result of its months long consideration of the evidence on whether Boris Johnson misled parliament – knowingly or recklessly – when telling MPs that he had repeatedly been assured that there were no rule or guidance breaking gatherings at No.10 during covid lockdowns. The Committee came to the pretty firm conclusion that Johnson himself did not have to rely on assurances since it must have been obvious to him that the gatherings contravened the guidance he was ramming home to the public day after day at his Covid press conferences since he was present at many of them. They dismissed his claims that the events were “reasonably necessary” for work purposes and his interpretation of the rules around mitigations – noting that in other workplaces leaving dos and morale-boosting thank yous were either cancelled or migrated online.

Moreover, they dismissed his claim that he had been repeatedly assured that the events were within the guidelines, using evidence from his own Downing Street team to the Committee. The additional evidence includes one from someone who worked inside Downing Street about the culture of ignoring restrictions – while trying to make sure nothing suspicious was caught by lurking cameras outside.

The Committee make clear that on the basis of that evidence, they would have recommended a suspension of more than the 10 sitting days that would have been required to open up the possibility that Johnson might face a recall petition and a by-election. But that would only have happened if MPs had voted to support the committee recommendation. That would all have been in the report that Boris Johnson received on Friday.

But that is not where the committee stops. The second part is driven by Johnson’s reaction to that report – his decision to release extracts, breaching committee confidentiality, and to issue an intemperate resignation statement denouncing the committee and its works caused the committee to react speedily, finding him guilty of a further three contempts to add to the two on misleading the House. It is clear that the committee is seething at what they see as a concerted attempt by Johnson and his supporters to undermine the integrity of the committee, its members and the legitimacy of its processes. That cold fury at the actions of a former prime minister led the Committee to increase the sanction they would have sought to 90 days (not the longest ever – but a much longer period than had been expected) and offer a point-by-point rebuttal of the Johnson critique.

Their ire will not stop there. The committee is still looking at the concerted campaign against them to see if further contempts have been committed.

Johnson’s decision on Friday to step down as an MP means that the proposed suspension is hypothetical rather than having any practical effect – the only actual sanction that might be applied is the removal of his entitlement to the pass which former MPs have.

Even so, the planned vote on Monday matters. It can be pretty safely assumed that every opposition MP will vote to uphold the privileges committee report. The real action will be on the Conservative benches where Rishi Sunak is offering a free vote. Leader of the House of Commons, Penny Mordaunt, warned in the Business Statement that Conservative MPs faced a grim day: “It will be a painful process and a sad process for all of us … but all of us must do what we think is right”.

Those who have already come out publicly in defence of the former prime minister will no doubt translate that into a vote against the report. But so far those are numbered in the tens.

Every other Conservative MP will face a dilemma. There may be pressure from their constituency parties to reject the sanctions – and Nadine Dorries has already suggested (on what basis is unclear) that those who support the Privileges Committee could face deselection by their local associations. There are reports that many may opt to have a long weekend away and fail to register a vote on Monday as a way of avoiding confrontation.

But those MPs should remember how uncomfortable they were when the Johnson government whipped them to vote down the sanctions against Owen Paterson recommended by the sister Parliamentary Standards Committee. That was the opening act of the unravelling of the Johnson government. A failure of significant number of Conservative MPs to back the Privileges Committee would undermine the position of their colleagues on the committee, but, more importantly, send a signal that they are not prepared to stand up for the ability of Parliament to demand that ministers, up to the prime minister, treat the House with due respect.

So next Monday will be an important day to see whether MPs are prepared to stand up for the principle – set out at length in the report – of being able to hold government properly to account and reject ex post attempts to denigrate parliamentary processes when they produce inconvenient results.

The current Prime Minister resigned from Johnson’s Cabinet last summer over a combination of policy disagreements, but also Johnson’s approach to government. Next week’s vote will be a key test of where Sunak stands in relation to his now disgraced predecessor – and whether he is prepared to risk some short-term (further) political pain to support the ability of parliament to uphold its processes.

By Jill Rutter, Senior Research Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe. 


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