During parliament’s summer recess, there has been a stream of interventions and editorials suggesting that the Privileges Committee inquiry into the conduct of Boris Johnson should be brought to a premature end. Some have focused on the fact that Johnson will have been replaced as prime minister before the committee begins its public hearings. Others, such as devoted political supporters of the PM Nadine Dorries and Zac Goldsmith, have gone much further, arguing that the inquiry is a “witch hunt” and that to continue it would be an “abuse of power.” Some allegations of this kind, comparing the committee to a rigged kangaroo court, have been quite preposterous.
Somewhat surprisingly, these claims have been given a veneer of respectability by political scientist and constitutional commentator Vernon Bogdanor, who used an article in the Telegraph to compare the investigation to a criminal trial, suggesting that “there must be some doubt whether Mr Johnson is being given the normal protections afforded to those accused of a serious offence.” Today’s newspapers report that the Cabinet Office has commissioned legal advice from David Pannick, a highly respected QC, and that its publication will be “devastating” for the inquiry.
It is understandable that, as the country acquires a new prime minister and struggles with a cost-of-living crisis, there are demands the investigation simply be forgotten as a hangover from previous events. But I would argue its continuation is an important constitutional issue for the rule of law in the UK.
Most importantly, the prime minister cannot be seen to be above the rules. While the parties in Downing Street sound trivial compared to issues of policy, these were the laws which applied to everyone. Critically, the crux of that issue has already been determined by the police, who issued the PM with a fixed-penalty notice, which was not challenged. The case that the committee is examining is whether Johnson misled parliament and committed a contempt in his response to the various allegations about Partygate—in particular when he asserted that “no Covid rules were broken” and that the “guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times.”
Erskine May, the bible of parliamentary practice, records that in 1997 parliament passed resolutions to the effect that ministers who “knowingly mislead parliament” will be expected to offer their resignation. Ministers are also expected to correct “any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.” The same requirements are found in the Ministerial Code.
It would clearly be impossible for parliament to hold the government to account if ministers were able to provide it with inaccurate or intentionally misleading information with total impunity. The prime minister’s account of his behaviour remains a very serious matter. And it would not do if the impression were given to other ministers and MPs that by simply standing down, they can evade accountability and punishment. This is particularly relevant since parliament as an institution has confronted more accusations of misconduct and harassment than most.
The fact that the PM is standing down is of little to no relevance to the continuation of the investigation. Johnson resigned as leader of the Conservative Party following the Chris Pincher affair and only after 57 resignations from government. He did not admit to misleading the House over Partygate. Nor did he make an honourable and voluntary sacrifice in standing down—he waited until the last possible moment, when it was clear to everyone that he had no other options left.
In his article, Bogdanor painted the committee as some form of court, described the actions of the PM as alleged “offences,” talked of a potential “guilty verdict” and suggested it had set the bar too low in terms of what would constitute culpability. But parliament is not a court. The matter is not an alleged crime. And the committee itself has no power, other than to issue a report with a recommendation. It is clear from the resolutions that specific intent to mislead may not be necessary, particularly if Johnson has failed to correct an inadvertent error when given the opportunity.
Notably, it will be for the House of Commons to determine what to do once it receives the committee’s report. The report will include findings on whether the House was misled, whether this constitutes a contempt of parliament, and if so what sanction (if any) is recommended. Sanctions can range from oral or written apologies and admonishment to suspension from the service of the House for a specified period or even expulsion. If the PM is found in contempt, the severity of any recommended sanction is likely to depend on whether he was intentionally misleading, or failed to correct the record expeditiously.
A suspension of 10 sitting—or 14 calendar—days or more could potentially lead to Johnson being subject to a recall petition (under the Recall of MPs Act 2015), triggering a by-election in his Uxbridge constituency. Much has been made of this, but it seems rather unlikely, given the government majority in the Commons. If it did happen, Johnson’s fate would rest in the hands of his constituents.
It is plain that the committee itself, while having a majority of Conservative MPs, has done its best to act transparently and fairly throughout. Its chair, the Labour MP Chris Bryant, recused himself after making criticisms of the PM. The committee is advised by impartial officials, and appointed former Court of Appeal judge Ernest Ryder as an adviser. It has published information about its processes and has also taken the unusual step of publishing a paper by Ryder, which sets out some of the infelicities in Bogdanor’s argument and explains why it is inappropriate to suggest the Committee resembles a criminal court.
Both the acting chair of the Committee, Harriet Harman, and a senior Conservative member, Bernard Jenkin, have argued that the criticisms of the last month have represented “an attempt to undermine the procedures which the House has established to hold members to account.” I agree entirely with Ryder’s conclusion that members of the committee “are being subjected to a sustained campaign of adverse comment, much of which is seriously misconceived.” This should end at once.
While the PM’s supporters are presenting the inquiry as an annoyance or worse, if Johnson is innocent of the accusations and wishes to continue his political career, he should really see it as an opportunity to present his case and try to clear his name. Currently, his reputation is tarnished and the Partygate allegations reinforce a reputation for being occasionally “economical with the actualité.” Yet Johnson is still only 58. He may yet wish to stage a comeback, or take a political role in the House of Lords. If he wants to play any significant role in parliament in the future this matter must be properly resolved.
Any other outcome would suggest that the rules do not apply to everyone and that some ministers simply need not consider themselves accountable to parliament at all.
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