Privileges Committee questioning of Boris Johnson has constitutional significance
Now that the police and civil service investigations are complete, the seven MPs who make up the cross-party privileges commission can begin their investigation. Unusually for a parliamentary committee, the Privileges Committee can summon MPs to appear before it, so if backbench MPs decide that – in addition to requesting the documents and records (and photos) collected by Sue Gray – they must hear the Prime Minister in person, he will have no other choice but to appear, or be accused of contempt of Parliament.
Done right, forensic examination by a select committee can be more difficult for witnesses than the partisan back-and-forth of questions following a statement in the House. The Privileges Committee – which, like almost all Commons committees, has a government majority – must avoid money laundering charges by taking the opportunity to question Boris Johnson in person.
Its task, as ordered by the House of Commons on April 21, is to decide whether Johnson misled the House of Commons in his various statements on partygate, and whether – if he did – that amounts in contempt of Parliament. To make their decision, they will not only have to focus on his precise words in response to specific questions, but also determine whether the entirety of the Prime Minister’s claims over several months have been deliberately calculated to frustrate parliamentary scrutiny of events at the n ° 10 during lockdown. Their answer to this question is of fundamental constitutional importance – if they believe that – on a balance of probabilities – the Prime Minister misled the House (and did so knowingly), then he broke fundamental convention ministerial accountability to parliament that underpins its ability to hold government to account.
The Privileges Committee will report its findings to the House, which will then vote on whether to approve its findings and any recommended sanctions. This is unlikely to happen before the House returns from summer recess, given that the inquiry cannot even begin until the composition of the committee is changed – the House of Commons must d first agree to replace chairman Chris Bryant with another Labor member for the duration of the inquiry (which he recused himself from because of public comments he made about Johnson’s lie).
There has been some debate over whether a conviction of the Prime Minister and a suspension sanction of 10 days or more could result in the Prime Minister facing a removal petition – as it would if he were sanctioned in the same way by the standards. Committee. While the answer is – purely technically – probably “no” due to the way the relevant legislation is written and has been interpreted previously, the answer is also irrelevant because the political consequences of a decision against Johnson would come into effect well before any callback request. time to put on his boots.
The investigation into the Prime Minister by the Privileges Committee focuses on whether he may have been in contempt of Parliament by misleading it. But if the committee found he did so – and did so knowingly – it would also mean the prime minister breached the ministerial code.
Friday’s announcement of changes to the ministerial code – among other things to introduce a wider range of possible sanctions that can be imposed on a minister found guilty of an offense – has sparked speculation that it is an attempt to mitigate the consequences of a sentencing procedural committee against the prime minister. But although the Prime Minister has formalized the discretion he already really exercises over the sanctions he can impose on his ministers for breaches of varying gravity, the clause in the code which obliges a minister who knowingly misleads Parliament to offer his resignation remains unchanged. And the same point applies to the recall – if Johnson is found to have knowingly lied to Parliament, he is unlikely to be able to resist political calls for his resignation.
Members of the Privileges Committee are the latest unfortunate group to be given the unenviable task of deciding the fate of a sitting prime minister. Both the Met investigation and the Sue Gray inquiry have come under heavy criticism, with complaints of lack of transparency or inconsistency. The Privileges Committee must be careful not to fall under the same accusations. Also at all times, its members must be aware of the constitutional scope of their inquiry.