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30 June 2023

Johnson’s populists have lost their battle with the Privileges Committee

The committee’s report on “interference” by MPs is an assertion of strength by an institution under attack.

By Zoë Grünewald

The parliamentary Privileges Committee has accused Boris Johnson‘s allies of running a “coordinated campaign of interference” with its inquiry into the actions of the former prime minister.

In a report published yesterday (29 June) the MPs on the committee described “disturbing” attempts by seven parliamentarians to undermine, pressure and intimidate the committee while it was examining whether Johnson had deliberately misled parliament over partygate. The former ministers Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg, who called the committee a “kangaroo court”, came in for especially sharp criticism.

The committee’s inquiry into Johnson concluded that, as prime minister, he had deliberately misled parliament about whether lockdown rules were followed in No 10, and would have recommended that he be suspended for 90 days had he not already committed to standing down as an MP. The committee said yesterday that its latest report “puts on record our concern at the improper pressure brought to bear on the committee” and that doing so was “crucial to our democracy”; it was vital, it said, that MPs “do not impugn the integrity” or “attempt to lobby or intimidate” the committee.

For some time, MPs from all parties have been worried about the erosion of respect for institutions such as parliament and the civil service. Elected on the mandate of “getting Brexit done”, one of Johnson’s first moves was to unlawfully prorogue parliament to force through Brexit legislation. Thus began a narrative integral to Johnson’s populist persona: that he was championing the people’s cause and parliament and the courts were somehow getting in the way of democracy.

Johnson and his allies will of course argue that their concerns are valid. They suggest, conspiratorially, that it makes perfect sense that the Privileges Committee would seek to get rid of the only man brave enough to take it on. They suggest the Labour chairwoman of the committee, Harriet Harman, had already made up her mind about Johnson before the inquiry began.

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Johnson’s allies have also suggested that the committee is acting beyond its authority by in effect removing Johnson as an MP – the 90-day suspension would have triggered recall petition and potentially a by-election, which Johnson would have been expected to lose – when such a decision should be up to “the people of this country […] not Harriet Harman”. The reality, of course, is that the conclusions were those not just of Harman but the whole committee, which has a Tory majority.

Predictably, Johnson’s supporters have already begun to retreat. Brendan Clarke-Smith and Mark Jenkinson, two MPs named in the report, have denied ever referring specifically to the committee, although both claimed Johnson was the victim of a “witch hunt”. More notable, perhaps, are the MPs who have stayed silent, including Rees-Mogg and Dorries, the two most senior and influential supporters of Johnson.

Johnsonites spent much of their time railing against institutions they were in fact in charge of. But with Johnson now out of office, it appears those institutions are empowered again. Yesterday’s report serves as a warning to other populists looking to Boris Johnson for inspiration.

[See also: Boris Johnson wants leniency no one else is getting]

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