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20 January 2022

What happens if Boris Johnson is found to have lied to parliament?

The ministerial code states that ministers who “knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister”. Is it that simple?

By Freddie Hayward

Did Boris Johnson mislead parliament? When the Prime Minister admitted to attending the 20 May 2020 bring-your-own-booze garden party, he told parliament that he “believed implicitly that this was a work event”.

But on 17 January, Johnson’s former special adviser Dominic Cummings claimed that he, and potentially another senior official, warned the Prime Minister about the party before it happened. If Johnson was warned that a party was taking place that evening, before attending for 25 minutes himself, it becomes very difficult for him to maintain that he thought it was a work event. And if Johnson was warned the event broke the rules, presumably he would have decided then whether or not he agreed with that advice – something that would undermine his claim to have come to an “implicit” decision it was a work event. Therefore, his statement to parliament that he “implicitly” thought it was a work event becomes impossible to believe. 

While No 10 has rejected Cummings’s version of events, two other former Downing Street officials have told the BBC they remembered Cummings telling them that he had advised the Prime Minister to stop the drinks going ahead. Cummings himself wrote that he “would swear under oath this is what happened”. He is due to give evidence to Sue Gray’s inquiry in the coming days.

This causes serious problems for Johnson because the ministerial code – which sets out the standards expected of those who govern us – states that ministers must give “accurate and truthful information to Parliament”, and that ministers who “knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister”.

This at first might appear to be game over for Johnson – if he lied, he should leave. But in practice, there’s no concrete mechanism to force the resignation of a minister – including the prime minister – who has broken the ministerial code. The ministerial code is not legally binding. Rather, “ministers are expected to do the honourable thing and resign if they’re found to have deliberately misled parliament,” Craig Prescott, a lecturer at Bangor University and expert on UK constitutional law, told me. 

It is even harder to hold Johnson to account because he himself is the ultimate arbiter of the ministerial code. He decides whether a breach by a minister is investigated and what the punishment should be. Johnson has a large amount of discretion over the process. Moreover, his previous decisions on implementing the code suggest he holds it in low regard. When Priti Patel was investigated for allegations of bullying in 2020, Johnson tried to persuade Alex Allan, his independent adviser on ministerial standards who was investigating the incident, to tone down the report. He subsequently ignored its findings, which led Allan to resign. 

Even if Sue Gray’s report into the Downing Street parties establishes that Johnson was warned about the 20 May drinks, the Prime Minister is unlikely to resign: in a recent Sky News interview he rejected the opportunity to accept, even in principle, that prime ministers should resign if they mislead parliament.

What about parliament? MPs are unlikely to be able to bring down the Prime Minister through a vote of no confidence because the Conservatives have a strong majority. And even if enough Tory MPs decided to oust Johnson, they would act through their own back-bench 1922 Committee – by sending letters of no confidence to its chair Graham Brady – rather than team up with Labour in the Commons.

“Whichever way you look at it,” said Prescott, “all roads lead to the question of how many Conservative MPs send a letter to Brady.”

[See also: Could Boris Johnson yet survive as Prime Minister?]

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