Westminster is salivating in anticipation of electrifying theater. “It will be mandatory viewing,” says a former cabinet minister. “We’ll all be watching.” Just after lunchtime this Wednesday, Alexander Boris of Pfeffel Johnson will be at the pier for contempt of parliament, a charge that could result in his expulsion from it. He will have to answer multiple charges of lying to the House of Commons about Partygate when he faces a televised questioning by the seven members of the privileges committee.
The stakes will be high in what is expected to be a marathon inquisition. The grieving families of Covid victims and everyone else outraged by this scandal have had a long wait until Johnson is finally officially held to account for the deceptions he deployed to try to cover up Partygate. A guilty verdict from the committee will resonate around the world because it is very likely to lead to his expulsion from the House of Commons. That would be a first for this country. No former prime minister has been expelled from parliament in such a way. It would surely also mean the extinction of his ambitions to return to Number 10. Equally if not more important, this is a crucial test of whether parliament is capable of protecting its integrity and our democracy from abuses of power by deceivers like he.
He has often maintained that he is blithely relaxed about the doomsday he will face this week, but this is an interrogation the defendant has been dreading. We know because he has hired expensive lawyers, at considerable cost to the taxpayer, to advise them on how to save their skins. We also know this from the desperate efforts he and his gang went to to try to suppress and discredit the investigation into his misconduct.
The first gambit, which happened when I was still clinging to at number 10, it was trying to block a referral to the privileges committee, an attempt that failed when a large number of Conservative MPs refused to be complicit in what would have been a cover-up of a cover-up. Having failed to prevent an investigation, there was then what appeared to be an attempt to block it. When the committee looked for evidence of Number 10, it was Not proportioned or produced in a form so strongly worded as to be useless. It wasn’t until late last year that the committee finally got the material it needed to do its job properly. As the committee has carried out its work, taking witness statements, examining exchanges between Number 10 staff and collecting other material, the Johnson gang has rubbed as a “witch hunt” and a “kangaroo court”. These attacks on the committee, which is mandated and proceeds with the authority of the House of Commons as a whole, are surely contempt of parliament in themselves. According to my polls, committee members have been angered, understandably, by this campaign to undermine them.
Your job description is clear. They are not deciding whether or not there were illegal gatherings at Number 10 during the pandemic. Everybody everywhere knows that lawbreaking was rampant in Downing Street. We have seen the incriminating photographs, read the damning witness statements, and are aware that police issued 126 tickets, including one for Johnson himself, for what the Met commissioner at the time called “serious and flagrant infractions of the rules. The committee does not have to decide whether or not the former prime minister misled parliament. Everybody everywhere knows that he did it and on several occasions. On December 1, 2021, told the Commons that “all guidance was fully followed in #10”. We know that this and other claims, such as “the rules were followed at all times”, were simply false.
The committee’s job is to judge whether his refusals were the result of an innocent misunderstanding about the lockdown break that took place at Number 10 or whether he told deliberate lies to MPs. The verdict to which the committee is inclined seems clear from its interim report Posted fifteen days ago. This concluded that it would have been “obvious” to Mr Johnson that the law was being flouted within Number 10, especially when he himself was present at parties that break the rules. Witness testimony shows him telling a packed gathering inside the building, which took place at a time when lockdown restrictions were very strict, that it was “probably the least socially distanced gathering in the UK right now”. Upon the release of that interim report, he claimed that he “totally vindicates me,” which was an extreme reversal of truth even by his standards. The report was damning and it is important to note that the four conservative members of the committee signed along with the three MPs from the opposition parties. “That bodes ill for Boris,” acknowledges a Tory senior.
The privilege committee is rarely in the spotlight and has never been so center stage before. The Labor chair of this inquiry, Harriet Harman, is a highly experienced politician and her lead Conservative, Sir Bernard Jenkin, has been an MP for over 30 years. Yet none of them, let alone the lesser-known members of the force, have been involved in anything of this magnitude. We must hope that they have done their homework and have their wits for what will be a meaningful test. For their individual reputations and that of the Commons they represent, they must handle this questioning effectively. “The committee will really have to be at the top of their game,” says a privy councillor.
Encouragingly, they have spent a lot of time assessing the evidence and have also spent a few hours rehearsing how they intend to carry out their inquisition of the former prime minister. That’s sensible given the elusive nature of the defendant. He was one of Mr. Johnson’s friends who once nicknamed him “the greased sucker” in homage to his ability to slide out of the tightest places. In the past, she will claim that she attended alcohol-fueled gatherings in the belief that they were legal “work events” and relied on “assurances” from others that everything was within the rules. He has never been specific about who gave him those “guarantees.” Was Dilyn the dog?
There is a mountain of evidence to suggest that both he and senior staff at Number 10 must have known that the law had been broken before denying it to parliament. To take just one of many examples, there is an exchange between officials in which their communications director says: “I’m struggling to find a way that this is in the rules.” Most of the public and most MPs concluded long ago that he lied about Partygate. However, it is important that the committee deploy the evidence in a forensic manner that leaves him with no place to hide and the other apologists with no room to continue to protest his innocence. “It’s quite difficult to question him, Johnson, because it’s all bluster and bluster,” says a senior MP with experience doing so in a committee format. “They will have to immobilize him.”
If the committee recommends his suspension from parliament for 10 or more sitting days, and the Commons uphold that sanction, then he is seeing the downfall. A recall election will be triggered provided the petition is signed by at least one-tenth of his constituents in Uxbridge and South Ruislip. Then he would have to decide whether to resign or contest the seat. The odds currently suggest he would lose it by a wide margin.
So Wednesday is going to be a big day. We may be witnessing the beginning of the end of Boris Johnson’s parliamentary career and his lie-strewn odyssey through British political life. That’s huge. Even more crucial, the Commons have an opportunity they must seize to protect themselves and us from a lying government. It is a basic premise of our democracy that the executive is accountable to parliament. That base is destroyed if ministers think they can get away with deliberately misleading parliamentarians. When those in power believe they can cheat with impunity, it becomes impossible for parliament to do its job on behalf of the people. That is horribly corrosive to democracy and public faith in it. That is why it is so essential that the penalties for lying to parliament be high and especially severe when the perpetrator has lied, and on a serious issue, from the highest office in the country. It is not just the fate of a disgraced prime minister that is at stake. It is the credibility of parliament, the reliability of our political culture and the health of our democracy.