Westminster is red in anticipation of the electrifying theatre. “It will be a must watch,” says a former cabinet minister. “We’ll all see.” After lunchtime this Wednesday, Alexander Boris de Feifel Johnson will be in the dock for contempt of parliament, a charge that could see him expelled from it. He will have to answer multiple counts of lying to the Commons about Partygate when seven MPs on the Privileges Committee face a televised inquiry.
A lot will happen in what is expected to be a marathon inquisition. The grieving families of the Covid victims and everyone else outraged by the scandal have long waited for the moment when Mr Johnson is held to official account for the deception deployed to try and cover up Partygate. A guilty verdict from the committee will reverberate around the world as it is highly likely to expel him from the Commons. This will be a first for the country. No former Prime Minister has been expelled from Parliament in this way. This would surely mean the end of his ambitions to return to number 10. Importantly, if not more, this is a fundamental test of whether Parliament is capable of protecting its integrity and our democracy from abuse of power by thugs like him.
He usually says he’s relaxed about the day of reckoning he faces this week, but it’s an inquiry the accused dreads. We know this because He has Hiring expensive lawyers, at great cost to the taxpayer, to advise him how to save his skin. We also know this because he and his gang tried to suppress and discredit the investigation into his misconduct.
The first gamble, which occurred while he was still clinging to No. 10, was to try to prevent a referral to the Privileges Committee, an attempt that failed when a large number of Conservative MPs refused to engage in what could be a cover. – Up of a cover up. After failing to stop the investigation, it appeared to be an attempt to stop it. When the Committee sought evidence from Number 10, it was either not provided or produced in a heavily redacted form as useless. It was only towards the end of last year that the committee received the necessary material to carry out its work properly. As the committee went about its work, taking witness statements, examining exchanges between No. 10 employees and gathering other materials, Johnson. The gang has littered as “Witch-Hunt” and “Kangaroo Court”. These attacks on committees, mandated by the authority of the Commons and carried on by authority as a whole, are in themselves contempt of Parliament. From my voice, committee members are outraged, and clearly, by this campaign to undermine them.
Their job description is clear. They are not deciding whether or not there were illegal gatherings at No. 10 during the pandemic. Everyone knows that law-breaking in Downing Street was rampant. We’ve seen the incriminating pictures, read witness statements and know that the police issued 126 fines, including to Mr Johnson himself, for what the Met Commissioner called “serious and flagrant” breaches of the rules. The committee should not decide whether the former prime minister misled the parliament or not. Everyone knows he did and on many occasions. On 1 December 2021, he told the Commons that “all instructions were fully followed in 10”. We know that this and other statements, such as “the rules were always followed”, were simply untrue.
The committee’s job is to judge whether his denials were the result of innocent misconceptions about lock-busting in No 10 or whether he deliberately lied to MPs. From the interim report published a fortnight ago, it is clear which side the committee is leaning towards. It concluded that it would have been “obvious” to Mr Johnson that Law No 10 was being breached within, particularly when he himself was present at the rule-busting parties. Witness testimony tells him of a pack gathering inside the building, which took place when lockdown restrictions were so tight, that it was “probably the most socially disordered gathering in the UK at the moment”. In the publication of that interim report, he claimed that it “completely vindicates me”, which was extremely untrue even by his standards. The report was damning and it is significant that four Conservative members of the committee signed it, along with three opposition MPs. “It’s a bad harbinger for Boris,” reckons one senior Tory.
The Privileges Committee is not often in the spotlight and it has never been at the center before. The Labor chair of the inquiry, Harriet Harman, is a highly experienced politician and its senior Tory, Sir Bernard Jenkin, has been an MP for more than 30 years. Yet none of them, let alone the lesser-known members of the body, have been involved in anything of this magnitude. We must hope that they have done their homework and have their wits about them in what will be an important test. For their personal reputation, and for the commons they represent, they need to handle this inquiry effectively. “The committee really has to be at the top of its game,” says a private consultant.
Encouragingly, they have spent a lot of time assessing the evidence and spent several hours rehearsing how they intend to interrogate the former prime minister. This is understandable given the slippery character of the accused. It was one of Mr. Johnson’s friends who once told him “Greased pork“A tribute to his ability to get out of the tightest places. In past form, he would claim that he attended alcohol-fueled gatherings in what he believed to be legal “work events” and relied on “assurances” from others that everything was within the rules. He was never clear about who gave him those “assurances.” Was it Dillin the Dog?
There is a mountain of evidence that both he and senior staff at Number 10 must have known the law had been broken before he denied it in Parliament. To take just one of many examples, there are exchanges between officials in which his Communications Director says: “I’m struggling to come up with the way this rule is.” The majority of the public and the majority of MPs concluded long ago that they were lying about Partygate. However, it is important that the committee uses the evidence in a forensic manner that leaves him no hiding place and no room for his remaining apologists to contest his innocence. “He’s very difficult to question, Johnson, because it’s all bluff and bluster,” says a senior lawmaker with experience doing so in a committee format. “They’ll need to pin him down.”
If the committee recommends his suspension from Parliament for 10 or more sitting days, and the Commons approves that approval, then he is looking at the drop. A by-election will be withdrawn unless at least ten constituencies in Uxbridge and South Ruislip sign petitions for one. He will then have to decide whether to vacate the seat or fight. Forecasts currently suggest he will lose it by a huge margin.
So Wednesday will be a big day. We may be witnessing the end of Boris Johnson’s parliamentary career and the odyssey of his lies through British political life. That’s huge. More importantly, the Commons has an opportunity that it should use to protect itself and us from evil government. The basic premise of our democracy is that the executive is held accountable by Parliament. That foundation is destroyed when ministers think they can get away with deliberately misleading MPs. It is impossible for Parliament to act on behalf of the people when they believe that those in power can cheat with impunity. It is fatal to democracy and public trust. That is why the punishment for lying in Parliament needs to be severe and especially when the perpetrator has lied, and in serious cases, from the highest office of the land. The fate of the disgraced Prime Minister is not the only one at stake. It is the credibility of Parliament, the credibility of our political culture and the health of our democracy.