The writer is the acting director of the Institute of Government Studies, a think tank
Many in Westminster trace the origins of Boris Johnson’s downfall in the wake of the Owen Paterson scandal in November 2021, in which loyal friends tried to bail out a former senior minister who was sacked for breaching the law. severe House rules. Ministers sought to save Paterson by sabotaging the standards committee, the body that determined his crimes. But outrage has forced the government to turn its head to the detriment.
History is in danger of repeating itself as Johnson’s successors are pondering how to handle the investigation into his conduct while in office. At the height of the controversy, MPs passed – without opposition – a Labor motion asking the privileged committee to investigate whether the prime minister lied to parliament about Street parties. Downing violates the Covid ban, commits a crime of “contempt” of parliament or not.
The commission’s investigation has barely begun, but Johnson’s allies have launched fierce pre-emptive attacks on both members and the process. Ultra-loyal ministers Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg have argued that the committee is biased and the investigation should be halted.
One can expect Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, the two remaining contenders in the leadership contest, to steer clear of the mistakes of their predecessors. That would allow due process of investigation to take place and the consequences, which could lead to his removal from the Commons, to take place. But it is not easy. Neither was interested in criticizing Johnson, and Truss went as far as to say that – given the opportunity – she would vote to block the commission’s investigation.
The position is designed to appeal to Tory members who are choosing the next prime minister. Polls show that among junior candidates, Johnson is still more popular than either candidate. Meanwhile, among Conservative MPs, a serious case of “assassin’s remorse” appears to have occurred. Few would like to see Johnson removed from parliament to cover up outrage at being left out of the top job.
However, if she wins, Truss’ pledge to thwart the commission’s investigation will not survive the transition of power. The new prime minister will have to quickly shift the focus from pleasing a narrow party selection to attracting voters. Polls show a majority of voters continue to believe that Johnson’s resignation is right. Many will have a dim view of any attempt to thwart the investigation into whether he lied, seeing it as another example of politicians willing to apply this rule to surnames and other rules for the rest of us.
The results of the investigation are not a foregone conclusion. Even if the committee found Johnson guilty of misleading MPs, it could say there was not enough evidence to determine whether it was intentional – something he denies. If it is not proven, the commission can recommend a sanction in the absence of a request from parliament to suspend for 10 days or more. to trigger a challenge in his constituency. Even if it recommended a severe sanction, this would still need to be endorsed by a vote of all MPs.
It is an important convention that Commons business, including internal investigations, disciplinary proceedings and voting procedures, must not be politically influenced. Although weakened by recent bad practices, this persists because it is essential that the Commons be able to uphold its rules and make rulings without being politicized. Politicians on all sides often misbehave with each other; MPs must be able to hold them to account. And governments should always be wary of using their majority to set a precedent that they don’t want to see power-based opponents.
The Johnson administration squandered significant political capital and undermined its credibility by repeatedly defending inappropriate behavior. The new prime minister should be careful to repeat such mistakes.