Boris Johnson: What Does The Privilege Committee Report Say About His Conduct?

After the full report into Johnson’s alleged misleading of Parliament is released, we break down what it contained

Boris Johnson holding his head in his hand
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The 15th of June 2023 will go down as a pivotal day in UK Politics.

It was the day where the UK Parliament Committee of Privileges released their report on whether Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson knowingly mislead Parliament when telling both sides of the House that no rules were broken when “parties” were being held at Downing Street and Whitehall during restricted phases of COVID-19 Lockdowns.

The problem was, the Sue Gray Report found there were multiple breaches of COVID protocols – Wine Time Friday, a drinks invite sent to TWO HUNDRED civil servants and a Christmas party were among some of the most flagrant breaches of COVID laws that the UK saw – laws that Boris Johnson himself passed .

While most of us were abiding by the rules, those setting them were busy flouting them.

As thousands died alone in hospital or only able to see loved ones over Zoom, Number 10 was having a right old rollicking time and then Johnson turned around to parliament and said “all guidance was followed”.

Even after Johnson and then-chancellor (now Prime Minister) Rishi Sunak were issued Fixed Penalty Notices by the Met Police for breaking the law[1]CSW: Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak to receive Met Police fines over Partygate scandal, Johnson still insisted in the house that “all guidance was followed”.

Well the Privileges Committee thought differently and in a damning 108 page report they thoroughly take Johnson to task and explain how and why he knowingly (key phrase here) lied to Parliament about PartyGate.

Before we move on, in case you wish to slog through the whole thing: read in full here (Full Report PDF) or read the summary here (Summary HTML Format).

Oh and if you think that Johnson resigning as an MP on the 9th of June[2]The Guardian: Boris Johnson resigns as MP with immediate effect over Partygate report means he’s free and clear? He’s not!

So let’s take a look at who the Privileges Committee are and what they have to say on the matter – and don’t worry, I’m not going to go over all 108 pages here, just the main points!

Who Are The Committee of Privileges?

The current members are:

  • Harriet Harman MP (Labour, Camberwell and Peckham) (Chair)
  • Andy Carter MP (Conservative, Warrington South)
  • Alberto Costa MP (Conservative, South Leicestershire)
  • Allan Dorans MP (Scottish National Party, Ayr, Carrick & Cumnock)
  • Yvonne Fovargue MP (Labour, Makerfield)
  • Sir Bernard Jenkin MP (Conservative, Harwich and North Essex)
  • Sir Charles Walker MP (Conservative, Broxbourne)

As you can see, the committee had a Conservative majority so it wasn’t some “left wing Marxist witch-hunt” as some Conservatives are trying to make it out to be.

Also, the committee’s usual chair, Chris Bryant (a Labour MP) recused himself from the investigation[3]Business Insider: Labour MP Chris Bryant recuses himself from possible probe into whether Boris Johnson misled Parliament over partygate so it wasn’t seen as partisan as he and Johnson had sparred a few times in the House of Commons.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that Sir Bernard Jenkin may now be subject to a police probe (and maybe parliamentary sanctions) after Boris Johnson roundly threw him under the bus by claiming that Jenkin had attended a birthday party during one of the lockdown periods[4]Evening Standard: Boris Johnson demands Tory quits Privileges Committee on eve of partygate report – but that’s an article for another time.

What Were The Charges Against Johnson?

On the 21st April 2023, the House of Commons referred Johnson to the privileges committee to investigate “whether he had misled the House and whether that conduct amounted to a contempt”.

People obviously can make mistakes when speaking at the dispatch box and the remedy for this is to issue a correction at the earliest possible time. We all know that MPs quite often fail to correct the record – it’s a favourite tactic of Suella Braverman for example [5]London Economic: “Facts don’t matter”: Suella Braverman refuses to correct the record after citing incorrect figures in order to make points that aren’t as valid as she thinks they are.

To quote the Institute for Government[6]Institute For Government: Misleading parliament and correcting the parliamentary record:

The ministerial code – which applies to all ministers – states that “It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”

So why isn’t Braverman hauled over the coals? Well, it’s up to the Prime Minister to decide whether an inquiry should be launched. And he or she aren’t in a hurry to investigate one of their own MPs

Johnson obviously wasn’t going to investigate himself and a ministerial code investigation can’t take place unless sanctioned by the PM, so how did he get in this mess?

Ministers made a “substantive motion” in the Commons which led to a debate on the matter setting out what the PM was accused of – essentially deliberately lying that he knew the parties were in breach of regulations at the time and then told Parliament they weren’t.

The Deputy Speaker called for the vote on the 21st of April and, as there were no objections on either side of the house, the motion went through “on the nod” – in other words unopposed.

I’m not sure why no Conservative MPs objected forcing the vote to have to take place. Maybe they thought Johnson would be cleared, maybe they thought that the Fixed Penalty Notice showed his guilt and wanted to avoid association but the decision does seem to have come back to bite them.

How Was The Investigation Run?

The Committee had the power to ask for written statements from witnesses that were made under oath (so therefore legally binding).

Johnson himself gave both written and oral evidence – which would complicate matters for him even further as he stuck to his original story. He was then given the opportunity to provide even more written evidence after his in-person hearing.

During the process Johnson had access to all of the materials and evidence being gathered by the committee and knew who all of the witnesses were. According to Summary Paragraph 4 of the report, nothing was redacted and Johnson could see everything the committee could.

When looking at Johnson’s comments to the House of Commons about the PartyGate scandal the committee had to determine whether what was said by the then Prime Minister was:

  • A genuine error (i.e. he really was that clueless)
  • Intentional (i.e. he was deliberately trying to cover up for himself)
  • Reckless (i.e. that he really didn’t care what the truth actually was)
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They also looked at whether the record was corrected at any point and “in good time”.

What Did the Committee Find?

They found that Johnson knew what the rules were when all the breaches were taking place, he knew was was happening and that they were indeed in breach of COVID guidance at the relevant times, and that he misled the house in five ways (Summary Paragraph 6 of the report):

  1. When he said guidance and rules were completely followed
  2. That he didn’t tell the House that he knew about gatherings that broke the rules
  3. That he was assured by people all guidance was followed, he didn’t communicate what was actually told to him to the House
  4. He said that Sue Gray needed to investigate before he could talk about what he knew
  5. He pretended to correct the record but continued the misdirection.

They also go on to state that Johnson deliberately twisted words (they say he was “deliberately disingenuous”) when he tried to reframe rules and cover up his previous statements.

From Summary Paragraph 14 of the report – it’s a doozy!

We came to the view that some of Mr Johnson’s denials and explanations were so disingenuous that they were by their very nature deliberate attempts to mislead the Committee and the House, while others demonstrated deliberation because of the frequency with which he closed his mind to the truth.

As a reminder, disingenuous means:

not candid or sincere, typically by pretending that one knows less about something than one really does.

So the Committee were basically saying that Johnson was pretending to be thick so he didn’t know the rules, even though he was the one on TV telling the public about all the rules they needed to follow.

What About Kangaroo Court?

The committee gave Johnson a copy of the report on the 8th of June, on the understanding it was confidential until the release date of the 15th of June.

On the 9th of June Johnson published a public statement[7]Politics.co.uk: Boris Johnson statement on privileges committee report in full that covered some of the confidential statements made in the report.

The committee had yet to finalise the report at this stage and it was only an interim report so this was potentially another breach of ministerial code (spoiler alert kids: it was).

The statement from Johnson in part reads:

It is now many months since people started to warn me about the intentions of the Privileges Committee. They told me that it was a kangaroo court. They told me that it was being driven relentlessly by the political agenda of Harriet Harman…
Some alarmists even pointed out that the majority of the Committee voted remain and they stressed that Bernard Jenkin’s personal antipathy to me was historic and well-known…
I didn’t think for one minute that a committee of MPs could find against me on the facts, and I didn’t see how any reasonable person could fail to understand what had happened…
I knew what I had seen, with my own eyes, and like the current PM, I believed that these events were lawful. I believed that my participation was lawful, and required by my job…
The committee now says that I deliberately misled the House, and at the moment I spoke I was consciously concealing from the House my knowledge of illicit events.
This is rubbish. It is a lie. In order to reach this deranged conclusion, the Committee is obliged to say a series of things that are patently absurd, or contradicted by the facts…
But don’t just listen to me. Take it from the Metropolitan Police. The police investigated my role at all of those events. In no case did they find that what I had done was unlawful.

“In no case did they find that what I had done was unlawful” – why did he get a Fixed Penalty Notice then? They don’t just given them out on a whim.

It goes on for quite a bit more, I won’t bore you with the details but it’s almost Trumpian in its level of deniability. That Johnson could have done anything wrong? Deranged.

That Trump could steal secret documents? The Special Council is deranged.

It’s almost like they have the same dictionary or something – it would be comical if the self-denial wasn’t so at odds with reality.

If you’re a glutton for punishment you can read the full missive here (but I wouldn’t waste your braincells if I’m being honest).

What Was The Penalty Going To Be?

If Johnson had just waited until the report’s publication to launch his unhinged diatribe he would have faced being “sanctioned for it by being suspended for a period that would trigger the provisions of the Recall of MPs Act 2015.” (Summary Paragraph 17)

This would have probably meant being barred from Parliament for a period of 10 days which would have meant a petition would be issued for his constituents to sign.

There would only need to be 1 in 10 registered voters in his seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip to sign the petition for a by-election to be called[8]Wikipedia: Recall of MPs Act 2015.

BUT because of the additional contempt the committee felt Johnson had committed by discussing the contents of the inquiry’s report well before it was published, they decided to throw the book at him and give him a 90 day suspension.

When you consider that MPs typically sit in the Commons for around 120-130 days[9]BBC News: House of Commons recess: How much time off do MPs get? then missing over HALF of a Parliamentary session would have tanked Johnson’s political career anyway.

Which of his constituents would vote in a by-election to re-elect an MP if he can’t do Parliamentary business or help his constituency by representing them in Parliament?

Perhaps most damningly, they also recommend that he be barred from having a “Former Member’s Pass” which would effectively block him from entering Westminster ever again, no matter what political party he affiliated himself with.

He wouldn’t even be able to access the subsidised booze.

What Does The Full Report Say?

I’d just like to point out that all that above was just the SUMMARY in the first SEVEN pages of the report.

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As mentioned above, you can read the full report here (Full Report PDF) or read the summary here (Summary HTML Format).

The full report carefully goes through what Johnson knew and, most crucially when he knew it, what parties were held, when they were held and what Johnson was saying to the public and to Parliament at that time.

They go through quite a list of gatherings (which I’ve covered in my article PartyGate: How Many Parties Were There?) and I won’t rehash them all here.

Suffice it to say that the way the Committee lays out what the guidance was at the time, what Johnson was being told by advisers and what Johnson decided to do anyway is extremely damning to say the least.

One example (Paragraph 27 of the Full Report) regarding a gathering on 20th May, 2020:

We have evidence that trestle tables were set up for drinks to be laid out. We also have evidence that around 40 people were in attendance at this gathering, and that attendees who were there at the same time as Mr Johnson included Mr Johnson’s wife as well as advisers who were not from No. 10 but from other government departments.

Paragraph 28:

In his written evidence Mr Johnson states that he did not believe that the event broke the Rules or Guidance in force at the time, noting that the Guidance recommended “holding meetings outdoors or in well-ventilated rooms whenever possible”. He was aware that there was food and drink at the gathering, but did not consider this was incompatible with the Rules or Guidance.

If this was the case, why were we all stuck indoors? This event was in May 2020, but we weren’t all in other people’s back gardens having barbecues were we?

On the subject of Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) in Paragraph 32 of the Full Report Johnson said:

I want to dispute the idea that it was not an essential gathering or not [a] gathering that was reasonably necessary for work purposes. I don’t know why the FPNs were issued, but it may be that they were issued to people who had not a good enough reason to come in from home to that gathering, or people who had come from elsewhere to that gathering. But my firm impression is–and I think it is certainly still the case that Martin Reynolds believes–that that gathering was within the Rules and, indeed, within the Guidance.

This is again in relation to the 20th May, 2020 Party.

The report goes on covering gatherings in June, November and December of 2020 – each time pointing out how this could not have been seen as essential or followed any rules that had been set down at the time.

More damning is that just because Johnson didn’t attend a gathering, he must have known they were happening as he had to walk past some of them (notably the Press Office parties) and couldn’t have missed what was going on.

His excuse? He didn’t look closely enough to see if they were working or not or that he doesn’t have any memory (Paragraph 81 of the Full Report).

I think I’d remember a load of drunk people spilling wine up walls and singing karaoke, but maybe that’s just me.

Further PartyGate Fallout

Paragraph 95 addresses the additional information that was supplied to the Committee by Johnson’s own lawyers (if only he had paid for his own and not got Rishi Sunak to foot the bill at taxpayer’s expense) of a further SIXTEEN “gatherings” either at Number 10 or Chequers that weren’t covered by the original Sue Gray report or the Met Police investigation.

SIXTEEN!

Johnson and his lawyers stated that these events were proper work-related events this time and the Committee stated in Paragraph 98 of the Full Report:

We have no evidence conflicting with his account. We do not wish to incur the further delay to our inquiry that would result from a detailed investigation of these events, and therefore we treat Mr Johnson’s explanations as prima facie true. If for any reasons it subsequently emerges that Mr Johnson’s explanations are not true, then he may have committed a further contempt.

This is a bold move considering that Johnson has lied time and time again, and that this report found that to be the case. But then I understand that they already had him bang-to-rights and having to investigate a further 16 events from scratch – without the evidence that Sue Gray or The Met had already gathered – would have delayed the publication of this report immensely (which I wonder if that was Johnson’s plan all along?)

Johnson’s Responses

Johnson’s replies to the committee are listed from Paragraph 99. I won’t go into details but it basically says (paraphrasing obviously) “The committee is interpreting what the rules were incorrectly. I know better than you. You don’t have a clue. We did our best. No one told me it was wrong and everything was necessary and essential”.

PMQs & Press

Section 3 (Paragraph 118 of the Full Report) details what Johnson was told by others and what he then turned round and told the House of Commons.

There’s essentially a breakdown of every question he was asked about parties and gatherings and what his responses were each time.

A couple of other people (Jack Doyle – Press Secretary and James Slack, Doyle’s predecessor) were thrown under the bus as well and had their statements on behalf of Johnson analysed – they didn’t look too good either.

There’s a lot in this section because Johnson does love to talk and I will admit I skimmed this so if anyone knows of anything juicy I missed please leave a comment and let me know where to look!

Misleading The House

Section 4 of the Full report (starting at Paragraph 188) is devoted to how Johnson misled the House of Commons – with narrow interpretations of guidance, with assuring Parliament that everything was “essential” or “within the rules”.

The Committee defines contempt as (Paragraph 192 of the Full Report):

Any act or omission which obstructs or impedes either House of Parliament in the performance of its functions, or which obstructs or impedes any Member or officer of such House in the discharge of their duty, or which has  a tendency, directly or indirectly, to produce such results, may be treated as a contempt even though there is no precedent of the offence. It is therefore impossible to list every act which might be considered to amount to a contempt, as Parliamentary privilege is a ‘living concept’.

And perhaps the final nail in the coffin for Johnson’s career comes from Paragraph 210 of the Full Report:

We have concluded above that in deliberately misleading the House Mr Johnson committed a serious contempt. The contempt was all the more serious because it was committed by the Prime Minister, the most senior member of the government. There is no precedent for a Prime Minister having been found to have deliberately misled the House. He misled the House on an issue of the greatest importance to the House and to the public, and did so repeatedly. He declined our invitation to reconsider his assertions that what he said to the House was truthful. His defence to the allegation that he misled was an ex post facto justification and no more than an artifice. He misled the Committee in the presentation of his evidence.

So basically, if he’d have come clean, apologised and corrected the record all of this could probably have been avoided. He might have been docked salary or just given a slap on the wrist.

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All he had to do was say “Sorry, I was doing my best at the time in a bad situation and we got it horribly wrong.”

But instead he went with “all guidance was followed.”

Multiple times.

On multiple platforms.

Contempt, More Contempt And Even More Contempt

And then he chose to “attack the committee” (their words – it’s the title of Section 5). They clap back stating in Paragraph 222 of the Full Report:

We note that Mr Johnson does not merely criticise the fairness of the Committee’s procedures; he also attacks in very strong, indeed vitriolic, terms the integrity, honesty and honour of its members. He stated that the Committee had “forced him out […] anti-democratically”. 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. In our view this conduct, together with the egregious breach of confidentiality, is a serious further contempt.

And it seems Johnson’s contempt knows no bounds. From Paragraph 224 of the Full Report:

Notwithstanding his protestations of respect for the Committee, and his earlier deprecation of language such as “kangaroo courts” and “witch hunts”, we note that in his statement of 9 June Mr Johnson himself used precisely those abusive terms to describe the Committee. This leaves us in no doubt that he was insincere in his attempts to distance himself from the campaign of abuse and intimidation of committee members. This in our view constitutes a further significant contempt.

They then lay out all the times that Johnson had the opportunity to respond and address evidence and allegations against him and rebuked his claim that they had “suppressed evidence” that would absolve him.

Final Thoughts

From page 67 on, the Committee has some thoughts on the gatherings that took place (they carefully don’t use the word party a lot of the time which is interesting) and how the weren’t within the rules, how Johnson interacted with others and a whole host of other points.

Again I’ll admit I skimmed this but the message is clear from this whole report:

They had a shed load of evidence that Johnson knew what was going on and that what was going on was not following the guidance and he let it all slide. Then to add insult to injury when it all started to come out he stood up in Parliament and basically told everyone they were making a mountain out of a molehill.

And remember all of these gatherings with trestle tables, bring your own booze, wine and cheese, a wine fridge, karaoke nights, a Christmas party and wine and vomit all over the walls – these all took place while you and I were sat in our homes, unable to say goodbye to loved ones or see new relatives born in to the crazy time we were living in.

People were getting fined for going on a walk a short distance from their house[10]BBC News: Covid: Women fined for going for a walk receive police apology.

The police were using drones to catch people walking on moors[11]BBC News: Coronavirus: Peak District drone police criticised for “lockdown shaming”.

And while all of that was going on for us “normal plebs” those in 10 Downing Street and Whitehall were partying like it was 1999.

Johnson got caught red-handed and, for what seems like the first time in his life, he’s actually having to face the consequences.

Phew! This was a long one folks! If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading. I hope you found it informative and it means you don’t have to slog your way through all 108 pages of the report.

If you’d like to support me and writing/research of these topics then please consider Buying me a Coffee – anything you spare helps towards me paying for hosting and covering my time

 

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