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by Alistair Clark
15 June 2023
Unprecedented behaviour & a damning indictment: The Privileges Committee report on Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson sits in the Commons, flanked by Dominic Raab and Rishi Sunak, amid pressure over partygate

Unprecedented behaviour & a damning indictment: The Privileges Committee report on Boris Johnson

We have been waiting for the House of Commons Privileges Committee report into whether Boris Johnson misled parliament over ‘partygate’ events for what seems like an eternity. Its report, finally published today, will go down as a damning indictment of Boris Johnson’s time in office during the Covid-19 pandemic.

After fixed penalty notices were issued by police over gatherings in Downing Street during the pandemic, the House of Commons referred several of Boris Johnson’s assertions that all Covid guidance had been followed to the Privileges Committee in April 2022. The committee examined whether Johnson misled parliament, committed contempt of parliament and the extent of his culpability. It notes in its report that there was no precedent for a former prime minister being accused of misleading parliament.

A damning indictment on Johnson

The sanction which it seeks to impose represents a damning indictment of Johnson’s conduct. A 90-day suspension would be the second longest post-war suspension imposed by the Commons. Of the 60 suspensions between 1981 and January 2023, the most often imposed suspension has been for five sitting days. The average suspension was for 11.8 sitting days, which falls to 8.3 days if two suspensions of six weeks and six months respectively are excluded from the calculation. The longest suspension of six months was imposed in 2019 on Labour’s Keith Vaz for a range of misconduct.

The sanction appears to have been increased considerably from a provisional sanction of over 10 days that would trigger the Recall Act given Johnson’s behaviour since receiving the draft report. This has included leaking the committee’s conclusions, calling the committee a "kangaroo court" and suggesting that it is biased. The committee does not mince its words on Johnson’s behaviour. It outlines his deliberately misleading the House and committee, breaching confidence, impugning the committee and undermining the democratic process of the House, and being complicit in the campaign of abuse and attempted intimidation of the committee. For a former prime minister to have acted thus is unprecedented.

On attacks against parliamentary standards processes

The Privileges Committee report does something else extremely valuable. It defends parliamentary processes around standards and conduct. These have been under sustained and increasing pressure from 2019 onwards. Such pushback certainly existed prior to this, but its extent seemed to reach a peak of hostility under Johnson.

The Johnson government sought to undermine the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the wider standards system during the Owen Paterson affair in October 2021. There have been criticisms of the new regime set up to consider allegations of bullying and sexual harassment in parliament. Recently, former Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone gave an interview to Channel 4 News talking about the personal and professional intimidation she faced in the role.

The Privileges Committee indicates that Johnson used vitriolic and abusive terms to describe the committee and his insincerity in attempting to distance himself from the campaign of abuse and intimidation of committee members. In the committee’s words: "This attack on a committee carrying out its remit from the democratically elected House itself amounts to an attack on our democratic institutions. We consider that these statements are completely unacceptable."

The committee’s view was that both these behaviours represented further significant contempt. It has also indicated that it will be making a further report about members who attacked the committee and its processes during the inquiry.

This hopefully puts bounds on how criticism of parliamentary standards processes might be conducted. It notes early in the report that members should conduct themselves with integrity, and this clearly can be linked to how any discussion of parliamentary standards should proceed.

A poignant opportunity?

Johnson’s resignation has ensured that he will not have to serve any suspension. What parliament and the Conservative party will do should he attempt to stand again or be elected remains to be seen. This report would suggest that his political reputation has taken a serious blow as he contemplates the future.

A test of this report’s conclusions will come as early as next Monday, 19th June, when the Commons votes on its conclusions. It will be interesting to see if the report has taken the wind out of Johnson’s supporters’ sails, and whether the report is contested in any way. It is poignant to remember that the publication of the Privileges Committee report and next week’s debates coincide with the public inquiry into Covid-19 getting underway.

There would seem to be an opportunity for a reset around parliamentary standards in the aftermath of this report. Both the MPs’ Code of Conduct and the range of sanctions that might be imposed have undergone a quiet but significant updating in recent years. The Committee on Standards in Public Life have also made some recommendations. After this unprecedented report, a period of calm implementation of these would be an appropriate response to what has been a turbulent period for parliamentary standards.

Alistair Clark is professor of political science at Newcastle University. He is currently writing a chapter on the standards and conduct of parliamentarians having previously held a research fellowship on these themes. He has written extensively on electoral integrity, party regulation and Scottish local elections. Twitter: @ClarkAlistair

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