Privileges Committee: I wonder whether Johnson himself knows what he believes

The government’s former top lawyer says Johnson will accept the fairness of the process—provided the committee exonerates him

March 23, 2023
2PG2HMM London, England, UK. 20th Mar, 2023. Former UK Prime Minister BORIS JOHNSON is seen leaving his central London house as he gets ready to appear before House of Commons Privileges Committee on Wednesday over lockdown breaching parties in Downing St
2PG2HMM London, England, UK. 20th Mar, 2023. Former UK Prime Minister BORIS JOHNSON is seen leaving his central London house as he gets ready to appear before House of Commons Privileges Committee on Wednesday over lockdown breaching parties in Downing St

Unless you’ve been in a cave or up a mountain (or at a very long party) you will know the story so far. The House of Commons Committee of Privileges is investigating whether Boris Johnson misled the House over “Partygate”, and if so whether he committed a contempt of parliament. On Wednesday the committee grilled Johnson for over three-and-a-half hours in a very special piece of parliamentary theatre.

A word, first, on the role of the Privileges Committee. In our famously uncodified and flexible constitution, one of the most settled principles is that parliament regulates its own affairs. That is reflected in Article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1689, which says that “freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of parliament.”

So each House of Parliament sets, interprets and enforces its own internal rules and procedures, deciding when the rules have been broken and what punishment should follow. In this case the House of Commons has delegated to the Privileges Committee, by an unopposed vote, the task of investigating whether there has been a breach (a “contempt”) and, if so, recommending any penalty.  The committee is not a court, it is a committee of MPs. It is applying parliamentary rules, not the law of the land. Although a couple of them have a legal background, the members are (party) politicians, not judges. Some of Johnson’s supporters regard the committee as a “kangaroo court”: Jacob Rees-Mogg tweeted during Wednesday’s hearing that “Boris is doing very well against the marsupials.” But the alternative would be for some external body—like, say, a real court—to do the job. I suspect Rees-Mogg would like that even less.

Anyway, the committee has been striving to adopt a fair procedure, with help from a former Court of Appeal judge. Earlier this month it set out the “charges” against Johnson and the questions it proposes to address in reaching a recommendation. It has provided him with copies of all the evidence it has received. It has given him the opportunity to make his own representations, both in writing and orally. He was allowed to bring his lawyers to the hearing (although they couldn’t address the committee). The committee’s approach to questioning was disciplined and systematic and obviously well-prepared. The members have committed to “leave their party interests at the door of the committee room and conduct their work in the interests of the House not their party”: my impression is that they have genuinely tried to do that.

Johnson, after a bit of harrumphing, has largely engaged with the process. Yesterday he thanked the committee for their work and said he had “the utmost respect” for the chair, Harriet Harman. He deprecated the term “kangaroo court” and the bottom line seems to be that he will accept the fairness of the process… provided the committee exonerates him.

What about the substance? Johnson had accepted in his written statement that the House was misled by his statements that “the rules and guidance had been followed completely at No 10”. But at the hearing he was largely unrepentant. Indeed, he still claims to think the events were within the guidance—because the guidance was so heavily qualified that, if social distancing was impossible, it was sufficient not to touch one another’s pens (though apparently passing drinks was allowed). He still claims to think it was “essential” for work purposes for him to attend staff gatherings to raise morale and say goodbye to those who were leaving. He claims (preposterously, given government messaging at the time) that he would have given the OK to anyone else who asked about similar gatherings. “No concerns” (he says) were raised with him about breaking the rules. If it should have been obvious to him there was a problem, wouldn’t it have been obvious to everyone else? And surely they wouldn’t have published photos or held events on Zoom if they had thought they were illicit?  

So it went on. There was some homely stuff about trestle tables being set up for drinks at something which definitely wasn’t a party, and an interior designer popping into what was undoubtedly a No 10 work event. By the end, Johnson’s only concession seemed to be that some events “did simply go on for too long.” It’s the kind of thing that has a ring of the absurd: “What’s your greatest regret?” “My parties lasted too long.” 

What did the committee make of this? Generally they looked pretty unconvinced. Harman talked about members’ “dismay” that Johnson’s unequivocal assurances to the House were based on nothing more than a media “line to take” from a political adviser, and that he had sought no advice from a senior (permanent) civil servant or a lawyer.

The committee will now have to decide whether Johnson intentionally (or perhaps recklessly) misled parliament; and whether, how quickly and how comprehensively he corrected any misleading statement. If they conclude there has been a contempt, they can recommend a penalty. The House of Commons as a whole takes the final decision (including—if there is a finding of contempt —the option of imposing a more serious penalty than whatever the committee recommends). Suspension for 10 sitting days or 14 calendar days would trigger a petition in Johnson’s constituency under the Recall of MPs Act 2015: if 10 per cent of eligible voters signed it, there would be a by-election (in which he could stand). 

But first the committee must do its job. It’s no easy task. On Wednesday’s showing, it’s difficult enough to work out what Johnson believes today, let alone what he believed in December 2021. I wonder if he really knows himself.