Boris Johnson is facing the wrath of MPs, through the Privileges Committee. Tasked with determining whether he misled Parliament over Partygate, the Committee could potentially find the Prime Minister in contempt of Parliament. It may lead, one way or another, to him being forced out of the Commons.
Or will it? The motion endorsing the committee passed in April 2022, when Johnson’s fate as Prime Minister was unclear. Now his departure from Downing Street is imminent, allies have called for the cancellation of the investigation. Lord (Zac) Goldsmith argued the probe was “clearly rigged” and “a jury comprised of highly partisan, vengeful and vindictive MPs”. Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has stated the investigation would be the most “egregious abuse of power witnessed in Westminster.”
Such hyperbole is, say critics, shrill, unhelpful and itself partisan. Boris Johnson remains an MP, a job conferring significant status. Were any other MP to have misled Parliament, an appropriate suspension, potentially with a recall petition and by-election, would follow. The concept of the recall petition was introduced under the Conservative-led coalition in 2015. The investigation into Johnson was voted for by elected MPs and, as LBC’s Ben Kentish states, it “plays a key role in maintaining standards and accountability in Parliament”.
The committee is already tilted in favour of the Conservatives. Of the seven members, four are Conservative, two are Labour and one is an SNP MP. Johnson-supporting publications such as the Daily Mail have passed an investigative eye over Sir Bernard Jenkin, Laura Farris, Alberto Costa and Andy Carter for openly criticising the Prime Minister. This is despite Ferris leaving the committee last month and former Chair Chris Bryant recusing himself. The line of Johnson’s defenders is that he cannot get a fair trial. Dorries – on Team Truss, remember – is calling it a witch-hunt. Does Truss agree with this?
Downing Street is still signalling official support and assistance for the investigation by MPs, who stress their independence.
This is all a looming problem for Liz Truss, the likely winner of the leadership contest. She is backed by several senior pro-Boris, stop Sunak, fanatics. Truss has stressed she played no part in his downfall, in contrast to Rishi, to impress those MPs who worship Boris. However, it is unlikely the majority of voters in the country will like a new Prime Minister enabling those trying to get their hero off the hook.
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What will she do if the committee recommends punishment of Johnson? Hs supporters will demand she does a Gerald Ford, who pardoned Richard Nixon, or something similar.
Truss cannot pardon him directly and Boris will admit no guilt. But she could attempt to whip Tory MPs to end the “long national nightmare” as Ford put it, by trying to overturn any punishment. Presumably, his supporters will expect such an effort, even though it would be doomed to failure. They’re already trying to kill the investigation. Many Tory MPs, those who turfed him out, won’t want to be associated with any kind of save Boris campaign. Result, split parliamentary party on the legacy of Johnson right away.
In this way, Truss if she wins will be faced early on with a choice: ally herself with the pro-Boris forces or drop him like a stone and be accused of betrayal by those who love Boris and helped get her the job.