Boris Johnson and Partygate: The stakes will be huge during this week’s critical inquisition | Andrew Rawsley

OEstminster is salivating in anticipation of an electrifying theatre. “It will be mandatory viewing,” says a former minister. “We’ll all be watching.” Just after midday on Wednesday, Pfeffel Johnson’s Alexander Boris will be in the dock for contempt of parliament, a charge that could result in his expulsion from it. He will face several counts of lying in the House of Commons over Partygate when he faces a televised questioning by the seven MPs on the privileges committee.

There will be a lot at stake in what should be a marathon inquisition. The bereaved families of Covid victims and all others outraged by this scandal have long waited for the moment when Mr Johnson will finally be held accountable for the deceptions he deployed in an attempt to cover up Partygate. A guilty verdict from the committee will resonate around the world as it is highly likely to lead to his expulsion from the Commons. It would be a first for this country. No former prime minister has ever been kicked out of parliament in this way. It would also surely mean the extinction of its ambitions to return to number 10. Equally, if not more importantly, it is a fundamental test of whether Parliament is able to protect its integrity and our democracy against abuses of power by deceivers like him.

He has often maintained that he was blithely relaxed about the day of reckoning he will face this week, but it was an interrogation the defendant dreaded. We know this because he hired expensive lawyers, at great cost to the taxpayer, to advise him on how to save his life. We also know this because of the desperate efforts of him and his gang to try to suppress and discredit the investigation into his misconduct.

The first bet, which came while he was still clinging to No 10, was to try to block a referral to the privileges committee, an attempt that failed when a large number of Tory MPs refused to be complicit in what would have been a cover. -up of a cover-up. Having failed to prevent an investigation, there was then what looked like an attempt to thwart it. When the committee asked for evidence at number 10, it was either not provided or was produced in such heavily redacted form that it was unnecessary. It wasn’t until late last year that the committee finally got the materials it needed to do its job well. As the committee continued its work, taking statements from witnesses, reviewing exchanges between Number 10 staff and gathering other documents, the Johnson gang called it a “witch hunt” and a “kangaroo court”. These attacks on the committee, which has a mandate and proceeds with the authority of the House of Commons as a whole, are undoubtedly a contempt of Parliament in themselves. According to my polls, committee members were understandably angered by this campaign to undermine them.

Their job description is clear. They don’t decide whether or not there were any illegal gatherings at Number 10 during the pandemic. Everyone everywhere knows that breaking the law was rampant in Downing Street. We have seen the incriminating photographs, read the damning witness statements and know that police issued 126 fines, including one to Mr Johnson himself, for what the Met Commissioner at the time called ‘serious’ breaches and flagrant” rules. The committee does not have to decide whether or not the former Prime Minister misled Parliament. Everyone knows everywhere that he did it and on several occasions. On December 1, 2021, he told the Commons that “all guidelines have been completely followed in No 10”. We know that this statement and others such as “the rules were followed at all times” were simply untrue.

The committee’s job is to judge whether his denials were the result of an innocent misunderstanding about the deconfinement that took place in Number 10 or whether he told MPs deliberate lies. The verdict towards which the commission is leaning seems clear in its interim report published a fortnight ago. It concluded it would have been ‘obvious’ to Mr Johnson that the law was being flouted inside Number 10, particularly when he himself was present at parties which broke the rules. Witness testimony told him that a crowded gathering inside the building, which took place at a time when lockdown restrictions were very tight, was “probably the most socially distanced gathering in the UK at the moment”. When releasing this interim report, he claimed that he “totally vindicates me,” which was an extreme inversion of the truth, even by his standards. The report was reprehensible and it is important to note that the four Conservative members of the committee appended their signatures to it as well as the three members of the opposition parties. “It’s a bad harbinger for Boris,” said a senior Tory.

The Privileges Committee is not often in the spotlight and has never been more central. The Labor chair of this inquiry, Harriet Harman, is a very experienced politician and its leading Tory, Sir Bernard Jenkin, has been an MP for over 30 years. Yet neither, let alone the lesser-known members of the corps, have ever been involved in anything of this magnitude. Hopefully they have done their homework and have a cool head for what will be an important test. For their individual reputation and that of the municipalities they represent, they must manage this question effectively. “The committee will really have to be in top form,” says a privy adviser.

Encouragingly, they spent a lot of time assessing the evidence and also spent a few hours rehearsing how they intend to conduct their investigation into the former prime minister. This makes sense given the slippery nature of the defendant. It was one of Mr Johnson’s friends who once nicknamed him ‘the greased piglet’ in tribute to his ability to squeeze his way out of the tightest places. In the past, he will claim he attended alcohol-fueled gatherings thinking they were legal ‘work events’ and relied on ‘assurances’ from others that everything was according to the rules. He never specified who had given him these “assurances”. Was it Dilyn the dog?

There is a mountain of evidence to suggest he and the top executives at Number 10 must have known the law had been broken before denying it in parliament. To take just one example among many, there is an exchange between public servants in which his director of communications says, “I’m having a hard time finding a way that this one is in the rules. The majority of the public and most MPs concluded long ago that he lied about Partygate. It is nonetheless important that the committee deploy the evidence in a forensic manner that leaves him no place to hide and his latest apologists no space to continue protesting his innocence. “He’s pretty hard to interrogate, Johnson, because it’s all bluff and bluster,” says a seasoned parliamentarian with committee experience. “They’ll have to pin it.”

If the committee recommends his suspension from parliament for 10 or more sitting days, and the House of Commons ratifies this sanction, then he considers the reduction. A recall by-election will be called as long as a petition for one is signed by at least one-tenth of his constituents in Uxbridge and South Ruislip. He would then have to decide whether to resign or contest the seat. Predictions currently suggest he would lose it by a considerable margin.

So Wednesday will be a big day. We may be witnessing the beginning of the end of Boris Johnson’s parliamentary career and his lie-strewn odyssey through British political life. It is enormous. More importantly, the House of Commons has an opportunity it must seize to protect itself and us from a lying government. It is a fundamental premise of our democracy that the executive be held accountable to parliament. This foundation is destroyed if ministers think they can get away with deliberately misleading MPs. When those in power believe they can cheat with impunity, it becomes impossible for Parliament to do its job on behalf of the people. It is horribly corrosive to democracy and the public’s trust in it. This is why it is so essential that the penalties for lying in parliament be severe and particularly severe when the perpetrator has lied, and on a serious matter, from the highest office in the country. It is not just the fate of a disgraced Prime Minister that is at stake. It is the credibility of Parliament, the reliability of our political culture and the health of our democracy.

Andrew Rawnsley is the Observer’s chief political commentator

theguardian Gt

Not all news on the site expresses the point of view of the site, but we transmit this news automatically and translate it through programmatic technology on the site and not from a human editor.
Back to top button