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9 August 2022

Why the privileges committee must continue to investigate Boris Johnson

MPs accused of misconduct cannot assume they can escape sanction if they step down.

By Alexander Horne

In recent days, there has been a concerted effort by supporters of Prime Minister Boris Johnson to have the Privileges Committee inquiry into his conduct brought to an end. It is argued that, as he has announced that he will step down, continuing the investigation would be vengeful and vindictive. Nadine Dorries, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, has described the inquiry as a “witch hunt” and said that to continue it would be an “abuse of power“, while Zac Goldsmith, the minister of state for the Pacific and the international environment, described it as “rigged” and an “obscene abuse of power”.

At first glance discontinuing the inquiry might sound reasonable. The Prime Minister was subject to a punishment for partygate (albeit a very modest fixed-penalty-notice) and the parties at No 10 no doubt seem trivial to many people, particularly as now the country is facing a cost-of-living crisis. Now might seem like a good time to simply draw a line under the affair. However, such a verdict would be premature and there are a number of reasons to reach this conclusion. 

While the Prime Minister has announced that he will step down in September, the Chris Pincher affair, which eventually led to his downfall, has nothing to do with the Privileges Committee’s ongoing investigation. Although the parties in Downing Street may appear fairly inconsequential Johnson is, in fact, being investigated over whether he misled parliament about the alleged breaches of lockdown rules in No 10. His opponents allege that he did. That is a very serious matter. Some of Johnson’s supporters might argue that he has already made the ultimate sacrifice by stepping down, but it can hardly be said that he did so voluntarily. Indeed he waited until the last possible moment, when it was obvious to all that the game was up.

But perhaps the most important reason not to end the inquiry is that the Prime Minister cannot be seen to be above the rules. To give the Prime Minister special treatment now would be extremely problematic. MPs accused of other forms of misconduct (which is sadly all too prevalent at present) should not be given the impression that they can escape accountability and sanction if they step down. The message that is sent in this case is important.

It is very disturbing that the Privileges Committee is now being portrayed as some kind of “rigged” kangaroo court. It retains a government majority; it is staffed by impartial officials and advised by a former senior judge. The Committee’s chair, Chris Bryant MP, recused himself after having made partial comments about partygate. Moreover, the ultimate sanction of suspension (leading to potential recall) would have to be agreed by the House of Commons. In such circumstances, it is egregious for Dorries and Goldsmith to make such unjustified accusations.

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Rather than a vexatious inconvenience, the inquiry should be seen as an opportunity to reach a final determination on this affair. Parliament is there to hold the government to account. If Boris Johnson wishes to play any future role in the Houses of Parliament, he should welcome the opportunity to clear his name. If the accusations are found to be proven by the Committee, and he is ultimately removed from parliament, it will have a profound impact on his legacy.

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[See also: Liz Truss is channelling Boris Johnson, not Margaret Thatcher]