The privileges committee report into whether Boris Johnson misled parliament, and whether this amounted to contempt, has now been published. And let this sink in. If Johnson hadn’t already resigned as an MP, he would be suspended from the House of Commons for 90 days (which would mean a by-election) AND the committee recommended that he shouldn’t be entitled to a former member’s pass. Both of these sanctions are unheard of for a former prime minister. No wonder he went without saying goodbye.
Privileges committee report
The committee was asked to consider whether Johnson’s conduct amounted to contempt of the House. In other words, did Johnson deliberately mislead parliament in response to questions about the fixed penalty notices issued by the police in relation to events in 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office during lock down?
This may seem on the one hand an arcane procedure, but as the report itself notes “This inquiry goes to the very heart of our democracy. Misleading the House is not a technical issue, but a matter of great importance”. In other words, “if Ministers cannot be trusted to tell the truth, the House cannot do its job and the confidence of the public in our democracy is undermined”.
This is hugely important. If lying becomes the modus operandi of the person running the country, we are no better than a tin-pot dictatorship [with apologies to all tin-pot dictators]. Having elections, a fair judicial system, an attempt at an impartial press, freedom of speech and the right to associate – all these things are rendered useless if your prime minister and cohorts are able to lie with impunity.
If you can lie about parties and the breach of rules during the biggest crisis our country has faced in generations and the greatest peacetime challenge in a century, then you can lie about anything. Hospital building, the economy, trade, you name it. Suddenly everything that now is associated with this government is suspect.
The report didn’t pull its punches. It found Johnson had misled the House and “was deliberately disingenuous” to the House; that he sought to re-write the meaning of the rules and guidance to fit his own evidence; that he committed further contempt on 9 June 2023 by breaching confidentiality; that he impugned the privileges committee; and that he was complicit in the campaign of abuse and attempted intimidation of the committee.
Democracy in action
So before those seeking to defend Johnson cry ‘kangaroo court’ or ‘witch hunt’, just remember that the makeup of the committee is four Conservative, one SNP, and two Labour MPs. In other words, the Tories had the majority. The committee was instructed to carry out the inquiry by the House on 21 April 2022 without a single vote against, and the members to the committee were also selected by MPs without any division. This was, in fact, democracy in action.
For those interested, this is the committee:
- Andy Carter MP (Conservative, Warrington South)
- Alberto Costa MP (Conservative, South Leicestershire)
- Allan Dorans MP (Scottish National Party, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock)
- Yvonne Fovargue MP (Labour, Makerfield)
- Harriet Harman MP (Labour, Camberwell and Peckham) (Chair)
- Sir Bernard Jenkin MP (Conservative, Harwich and North Essex)
- Sir Charles Walker MP (Conservative, Broxbourne).
What’s next for Johnson, Sunak and the government?
This isn’t over for Johnson. Today’s report also notes that from the outset of the inquiry there has been a sustained attempt, seemingly coordinated, to undermine the committee’s credibility and those members serving on it. “We will be making a special report separately to the House dealing with these matters”, says the committee. Can’t wait for that one!
This is NOT over for Rishi Sunak or this Tory government. In fact, it’s just beginning. How does Sunak extract himself from being tarnished from this – after all, he was the chancellor and in Number 11 at the time of Partygate. So far he has refused to comment – that in itself is untenable.
Sunak is trapped by this. He can’t be seen to support Johnson but he will also have to say something about upholding standards and due process without the rest of us falling about laughing. At the end of the day, this was a Conservative prime minister and a Conservative government, and this is how they behave.
Luckily for some of the electorate, views can be made known at the ballot box in the next few weeks. The publication of this report and the by-elections in Johnson’s seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, in his mate Nigel Adam’s seat of Selby and Ainsty, are happy bedfellows for the opposition. The election leaflets are almost writing themselves. Bring. It. On.
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