I beg to move,
That this House approves the Fifth Report from the Committee of Privileges (HC 564).
In accordance with convention, as Leader of the House I have brought forward this motion at the earliest opportunity to allow Members to take a decision on the Committee’s recommendation. It is for Members of this House, in accordance with the principle of exclusive cognisance, to investigate matters of privilege in this place, and the findings being debated here are those of the Privileges Committee. The Government respect those important constitutional principles, which is why we have facilitated today’s debate.
The Privileges Committee exists to defend our rights and privileges in this place. Parliamentary privilege refers to the range of freedoms and protections that each House needs to allow it to perform its functions effectively and without outside interference. The right of each House to control its own proceedings and affairs is a fundamental aspect of privilege. Without such freedoms and protections, our ability to carry out our duties will be diminished; and if we do not enforce them, they risk being rendered meaningless.
A breach of privilege—that is, interfering with one of the unique rights and powers of Parliament—is punishable by Parliament. Each House also claims the right to punish contempt, which “Erskine May” defines as
“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”.
Those rules are obligations that we have to one another, to this place and to those who sent us here. They are also obligations that we have to future generations who will sit in this place.
On 21 April 2022, the House agreed to the resolution and order that established the inquiry from the Committee of Privileges. The Committee membership was established— again, with agreement from the House—the Committee selected its Chairman, and the House approved them. It commenced its consideration of this matter on 29 June 2022 and published its report on the 15th of this month. The motion before us today is not only votable but amendable. No amendments have been tabled against the motion.
The Committee’s report found that Mr Johnson “deliberately misled the House” and the Committee, and, in doing so, “committed a serious contempt”. It also found that Mr Johnson breached confidence, undermined the democratic process of the House and was complicit in a campaign of
“abuse and attempted intimidation of the Committee.”
It is for Members to decide whether the Committee’s findings, conclusions and proposed sanctions are correct and reasonable. That is the question in front of us today.
The Leader of the House referred to the evidence, and it is important that people who perhaps do not have the report in front of them understand the depth of evidence that the Committee looked at. That included: visiting No. 10 Downing Street; looking at evidence supplied by the Government, emails, WhatsApp messages and photographs; and conducting many hours of interviews. Does she agree that those who have not had all that evidence and have not done all those interviews should not presume to say that the Committee was wrong when it did that hard work on our behalf?
I have listened carefully to the Leader of the House. Will she confirm whether she will be voting in support of the motion in her own name tonight? A couple of years ago, when I had a previous Leader of the House in front of me, he brought forward a motion that he then in effect voted against.
Again, as the Member for Portsmouth North, I will be voting to support the Committee’s report and recommendations, but all Members need to make up their own minds and others should leave them alone to do so.
I do not intend to detain the House for long, but I think it would be helpful to briefly address some false assumptions that colleagues may be relying on. First, the process has not determined who gets to sit in the House of Commons. In vacating his seat, Mr Johnson has removed the right of his constituents to retain him as their Member of Parliament if they wish to do so.
Secondly, it has been suggested that the Government are wrong to give the House time to consider the report, and that it is to their detriment to have done so. No. Not to allow the Commons to vote on a report that it commissioned one of its Committees to produce would be wrong, just as it would be wrong to whip any Member on such a matter. This is the work of Parliament, and it is right that the Government give precedence to matters of privilege. Governments are scrutinised and held in check by Parliament. These important balances are a strength to our political system. A Government’s ambitions may well be limited by Parliament, but in being so they are not diminished. When Governments seek to interfere with the rights and privileges of this House, it is diminished.
Thirdly, it has been suggested that the Government should have stopped the work of the Committee of Privileges or should stop its future planned work. No. These are matters for the House. The House can at any time halt or direct the work of the Committee. It is doing such work because the House has directed it, and it is in the House’s interest to have such a Committee and that Members should wish to serve on it.
Seven years ago, during the Brexit referendum, the former Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip pledged to restore parliamentary sovereignty. Last week he utterly defiled that, in what the Committee described as
“an attack on our democratic institutions.”
The Committee of Privileges found him to have lied over and over again. Its jurisdiction is limited to statements made in this Chamber, but my party has consistently advocated for a law against the peddling of political falsehoods in public life. Does the Leader of the House agree that the time has come to enshrine in law the need for all politicians to respect the very concept of the truth?
The right hon. Lady brings me to my closing remarks on why what we do this afternoon matters, whichever way we decide to vote, or not to vote. The real-world consequences of a vote today may seem to come down to whether the former Member for Uxbridge has a pass to the estate. Our constituents may not appreciate why we are focused on contempt towards the House as opposed to contempts that they may feel have been made against them: the lockdown breaches themselves, which grate hard with those who sacrificed so much to keep us all safe; for others, the creation of a culture relaxed about the need to lift restrictions; for others, wider issues such as the debasement of our honours system. But we would be wrong to think that there is no meaningful consequence to our actions this afternoon.
The Committee of Privileges, in its work producing this report, did not just examine the conduct of a former colleague but sought to defend our rights and privileges in this place: the right not to be misled and the right not to be abused when carrying out our duties. As a consequence, it has also defended the rights of those who sent us here and those we serve. I thank the Committee and its staff for their service.
This matters because the integrity of our institutions matter. The respect and trust afforded to them matter. This has real-world consequences for the accountability of Members of the Parliament to each other and the members of the public they represent. Today, all Members should do what they think is right, and others should leave them alone to do so.
“The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.” Those are the words of Winston Churchill, first said in this House decades ago, and they hang over us today. Boris Johnson in particular and his supporters should heed the words of his hero. Mr Johnson undermined and attacked our democratic institutions—a far cry from a Prime Minister this country can be proud of. He lied to this House and to the people of this country and, when exposed, lashed out at the system designed to hold him and all of us here to account.
The backdrop to the report is the thousands of red hearts on the covid memorial wall just over the river. Every single one represents a life lost to this awful disease. For every single heart there is a human being loved, mourned and missed. For each, there is a story around them of awful loss—grief compounded by goodbyes done over smartphones, lives ended alone, people robbed of precious time together, and relatives unable to comfort each other at funerals. I urge Members who continue to defend Mr Johnson and attack the Committee and its findings to think of those families and what it means to them. They are our constituents. Defending Mr Johnson’s consistent insistence that thank yous, birthdays and morale-boosting parties were essential work events hurts them.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; she is making a strong case. Does she agree that Members who seem to think that abstention is an appropriate response to this debate are wholly wrong and that this debate goes to the very heart of the democratic principles on which our democracy is founded? Those who are abstaining are guilty not just of cowardice, but complicity with the very contempt for which Boris Johnson has been found responsible.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. Of course, this is a House matter. It is therefore not whipped. Like the Leader of the House of Commons, the right hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), I will be voting to approve and endorse the report and its recommendations, and I urge others to do the same.
By failing to admit that such events were against the rules and that he should have admitted that as early as possible, Mr Johnson is dishonouring our constituents’ sacrifice—sacrifices they made in the correct belief that they were doing so to protect others; losses that can never be recovered. Birthdays happen every year—it is Johnson’s today. Weddings can be postponed. Plenty were and I know it was hard, but it was possible. But funerals cannot. So I ask each and every MP to look into their hearts and before they risk dishonouring their constituents’ sacrifice, to ask themselves this: if a relative of a victim of covid from their constituency were in the room right now, what would they say? Colleagues across the House are decent people who want to do the right thing and I urge them not to follow Johnson’s example.
Mr Johnson claims the public do not care and that we should all simply move on. Believe me, I did not want to spend my weekend reading 30,000 words on the former Prime Minister. But to tackle soaring mortgage rates, rising crime, NHS waiting lists or any issue that the people we represent rightly want to see addressed, MPs and the public must be able to trust what Ministers say in the House of Commons. Telling the truth is the foundation of a functioning Parliament, the basis on which we hold Ministers to account. It is how we scrutinise new laws and it is how we do our jobs properly. Our democracy depends on it.
It is worth reminding Members today, before they vote, that the public do care about Ministers lying to Parliament. I cannot quite believe that some need reminding of that, but clearly they do. The Constitution Unit at University College London recently found that public anger over dishonesty in politics runs deep. People watching this debate today support the work of the Privileges Committee and rightly so. We all owe the Committee a debt of gratitude. Our constituents want us to step up and enforce the rules when MPs, including Ministers, break them. Being honest came top on a list of characteristics the public told UCL were most desirable for politicians to have. The health of democracy ranked high on issues that matter. They want a Prime Minister who acts honourably, who tells the truth.
The public can take some reassurance from this sorry saga, in that when a Prime Minister fails to act honourably and fails to tell the truth, we have a system here in Parliament to hold them to account. Far from the unfounded claims of a “kangaroo court” that I have heard from some, the Committee members detailed their process and took every possible step to ensure fairness. They, their Clerks and other staff deserve our thanks.
As the Leader of the House explained so admirably, the House voted unanimously to establish the inquiry. The Committee took legal advice from the right hon. Sir Ernest Ryder, former Senior President of Tribunals and Lord Justice of Appeal, from Speaker’s Counsel and from the Clerks of the House, consulting on how to
“apply the general principles of fairness, the rules of the House, and…procedural precedents”.
In the interests of transparency, the Committee published a report last summer setting out its intended processes. It made “further public comments” on its workings “when appropriate.” It gave Johnson further time to respond to the evidence and make his own submissions—and yet, since the start of the inquiry, there has been a sustained, seemingly co-ordinated attempt to undermine its credibility, and the credibility of its individual members. At no point, as far as I can see, did Johnson denounce this campaign. When asked, he said that he had “respect” for the Committee, and that
“he deprecated terms such as ‘witch hunt’ and ‘kangaroo court’”,
but, as we have now found out, he kept those terms in his back pocket all along to use as soon as things did not go his way.
Let us look at what the Committee found. It analysed six events that took place in Downing Street between 2020 and 2021, which it refers to as “gatherings”. Using the evidence available, it was able to establish: what the covid rules and guidance were at the time of each occasion; Mr Johnson’s knowledge of those rules and guidance; his attendance at or knowledge of events which breached rules or guidance; what he had been told by others, and what assurances he had been given about compliance; and, finally, what he had told the House.
That last point is obviously a matter of parliamentary record. We know from Hansard that Mr Johnson spoke in the House of Commons about covid compliance in No. 10 many times, and the Committee established that it was, in fact, more than 30 times. The examples that stand out include those that occurred during Prime Minister’s Question Time, starting with a question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) on 1 December 2021. I commend her, and many other colleagues who did their jobs as scrutinisers. Speaking then and to the Committee, Johnson asserted that the rules and guidance were followed “completely”, “at all times”, and while he was present at gatherings.
Having established all that, the Committee then measured what Johnson had said against the actual facts of what had happened and what he had either known or should reasonably have known, at the time and subsequently, and found that it was not correct. The term that he had used, “imperfect social distancing”, could not be found in the guidance. He had put forward an
“unsustainable interpretation of the Guidance”
“both disingenuous and a retrospective contrivance to mislead the House”.
In other words, Boris Johnson lied. This was a new low in his disregard for standards in public life.
I suggest that hon. Members across the House should ask themselves simply, “Does this pass the common sense test?” After he has lied his way through his career, and given the meticulous way in which the Committee has approached this whole inquiry and its carefully considered report, do they still trust Johnson? They should think back to 2020. In the first wave of covid, we had no vaccine, no mass testing, and no cure. People were afraid. People were dying. Would any one of us have considered that an event with an invitation list of 200, with wine, to boost staff morale or to say thank you for hard work, was essential for work purposes? Yet, even now, the former Prime Minister continues to say that it was.
Every single one of us will have constituency examples of heartbreaking cases in which people did not meet in person when they desperately wanted to do so. Doctors, nurses, care workers, teachers and bus drivers would not have dreamt of asking the then Prime Minister if they could get together for a “bring your own bottle party” with a “plus one”. They would never have brought their interior designer either. They knew the true meaning of sacrifice. They did not need to ask; they listened to him, night after night, telling us and reminding us what the guidance and the rules were. He was, as the Committee said, the “most prominent public promoter” of those rules. So it is simply not credible for Johnson to claim repeatedly that they were complied with, when the evidence is so damningly clear that they were not and that he must have known, because he was the one announcing them. This is not just the reasonable person test; it is the “Who on earth do you think you are kidding?” test. And he fails both.
The final area I want to cover is the current Prime Minister’s reaction to the report and where it leaves standards in Parliament and public life more generally. It is painfully clear that the Prime Minister is not strong enough to turn the page on his predecessor. When stories or scandals like this one cut through with the public, it offers the Prime Minister the chance to press the reset button, show leadership, get to grips with an issue and tackle it head on, but this Prime Minister is simply too weak to do so. Despite promising integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level, he has shown that he is too weak to stand up to Boris Johnson and his sycophants, which is profoundly dangerous, because if we cannot have a Prime Minister that stands up for standards, what have we got?
All we have heard so far are mealy-mouthed statements. It was on the Prime Minister to come to the House and set an example to his MPs. Instead, I hear that he has proactively said that he does not want to influence anyone on this. How is that integrity at every level? If the Prime Minister cannot even show leadership when it comes to holding liars to account, how can he expect the people of this country to trust him on anything? Is he at least planning to say something of note after the vote, or is his judgment so poor that he is sitting this one out completely? He is the Prime Minister; we should know where he stands.
I ask the Leader of the House: has the Prime Minister at least read the report? Does he personally endorse the Committee’s conclusions? Does he back the sanctions in full? The Leader of the Opposition has done just that; why cannot the Prime Minister?
As I said, the Government have form. I was shadow Leader of the House two years ago when Boris Johnson and the then Leader of the House tried to rip up the rules to save their friend, Owen Paterson. Hundreds of Tory MPs voted with them and, I am afraid to say, that included the current Leader of the House. The current Prime Minister was missing then, too. This has all the hallmarks of Paterson 2.0. This time, MPs have been actively encouraged to dodge the vote. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will prove me wrong, because a real leader would not abdicate responsibility. A real leader would encourage Members to rise to the moment. I welcome the motion in the name of the Leader of the House, but I ask: who on the Government side actually supports it? The Government Front-Bench team, from the media over the weekend, otherwise seem to be in chaos. Where are they?
Just yesterday, the Levelling Up Secretary said that he disagrees with the Committee’s conclusions. Does the Leader of the House know how many of her other Cabinet colleagues are not supporting her motion? Perhaps the easiest way to work it out is to think about which Cabinet Minister fancies their chances when it comes to the next Tory leadership election. That seems to be what we have been reduced to: Cabinet Ministers jostling for position with the membership. This is no way to run a country.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. Does she agree that the Prime Minister not being here and not saying that he will also vote for the motion does not show him trying to avoid influencing the outcome? It shows a Prime Minister who knows exactly what outcome he is trying to influence. His very absence seeks to influence the way Members vote tonight.
I want to make a brief point. I am voting in support of the motion and I did not vote in support of Owen Paterson, but I remind the hon. Member that we got rid of Boris Johnson a year ago because we lost faith in him, because he was probably not telling the truth. I am also an Iraq war veteran, and the reality is that when Tony Blair lied and lied and lied, you lot covered up for him.
It is sad, is it not, that we have come to this? This has been inevitable, but it is sad and it is not good for the House or the country. Does my hon. Friend agree that we also have to learn the lessons from this? It should not be possible for this to happen again. We should look at patronage and the way that it has been used recently, with people put into positions in the House of Lords with no experience. We have to learn from this experience, and it should never happen again. Does she agree?
I am still confused about Labour’s position on the former Prime Minister’s honours list, because I have never heard anyone on the Labour Front Bench say they would abandon the practice. Surely, after all this, they cannot agree to a Prime Minister’s honours list. Will the hon. Lady now take this opportunity to clarify Labour’s position?
I suggest the hon. Gentleman listens to the “Today” programme on catch-up, because my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), the Leader of the Opposition, made it very clear. Tony Blair did not have a resignation honours list and Gordon Brown did not have a resignation honours list. We believe this Prime Minister should have stood up to the former Prime Minister and his dishonourable honours list. This is no way to run a country. It is time the Conservatives stopped squabbling among themselves and focused on doing the right thing by the people who put them here.
As I mentioned earlier, Johnson attacked the Privileges Committee. The severity of the sanction imposed on him takes this into account, but it was not just him. Other Tory MPs have labelled the Committee a “kangaroo court”, so would the Leader of the House be able to tell us at some point, such as at business questions on Thursday, whether the Prime Minister understands the significance of these comments? What is he going to do about his own MPs who are undermining our democratic institutions? As this weak Prime Minister fails to step in to protect Parliament’s standards systems, I ask the Leader of the House whether she could step up. Will she explicitly condemn colleagues who have acted in this way? As Parliament’s representative in Government, will she demand that Ministers respect the institutions and practices of the House?
The Prime Minister is on record defending the work of the Privileges Committee. He has called out those who have overstepped the mark of genuine and legitimate questions about process, and so forth, and who have attacked and intimidated members of the Committee, bringing the House into disrepute.
The hon. Lady seems to be implying that the Prime Minister and other colleagues are not doing particular things because they might stand in any leadership contest. I gently point out that the Prime Minister does not need to win a leadership contest. He is the Prime Minister.
I thank the right hon. Lady for that clarification. It is not me she needs to remind but some of her own colleagues, who are obviously fighting the next leadership contest already. As Parliament’s representative in Government, I ask her to remind her colleagues of the importance of telling the truth at the Dispatch Box and of the process by which, when Ministers make honest, inadvertent mistakes, they come back to clarify them as soon as possible. She could start by asking the Home Secretary to do that in relation to the asylum decision backlog, which I understand she still has not clarified.
We all now know that Boris Johnson lied to the House but, as my hon. Friend said earlier, we also know that he came to this House and told those lies on 30 occasions, and he did so to cheers and whoops from all the Members opposite. Does she agree that they bear some responsibility for this and, if they do not absolve themselves by voting in a certain way today, their constituents will look on them very unfavourably?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and they not only cheered on the former Prime Minister. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) says Conservative Members got rid of him as Prime Minister last year, but that was only after they propped him up for a considerable amount of time.
Standards matter. Rules matter. Parliament matters. Respect for truth, behaving honourably, abiding by our rules and respecting our processes—this all matters. Why? Because without them we are nothing. If we are nothing, we fail democracy and we fail the people we have been elected to represent. If we lose their trust, and if they stop believing in democracy, our ability to serve them is crushed and our mandate to represent them is diminished.
To come back to where I started, the hearts on the covid memorial wall are what Members should have at the front of their mind when they vote this evening. On this side of the House, we hold democracy in the highest esteem, we respect the institutions of this House and we respect the process that the Committee has undertaken. I will approve the clear and just conclusions of the Privileges Committee, and I urge all colleagues on both sides of the House to vote with me to endorse, support and approve the Privileges Committee’s report, and to do right by our constituents.
The last speech was perhaps more party political than was deserved by the occasion. I would have preferred to have spoken after the Chair of the Privileges Committee, but I do so now and I draw the House’s attention to annex 3, on page 90, which deals with the:
“Purported response of Mr Johnson to the Committee’s warning letter”.
What he says and the Committee’s comments seem to provide the context on process.
The Committee has given its understanding of what the facts were and how it tried—successfully, I believe—to exclude the things that were not facts. The question facing each of us is: no matter how many good things we have done—the former Prime Minister did many good things—what do we do when we have done something wrong? Although this was on a pretty unimportant issue, on 2 December 1985 I managed to get two sentences into one line of a column of Hansard. My words were:
“I made a mistake. I apologise.” —[Official Report, 2 December 1985; Vol. 88, c. 84W.]
For anyone else caught in the kind of situation we are considering today, let me say that I hope someone would advise that approach, and that it is the sort of advice I hope I would take. I will support the Committee.
We have always had a great deal of concern about the conduct of this Tory Government, who misled us through the pandemic from beginning to end, and at times it terrified us. We saw the photos of Boris Johnson surrounded by empty champagne bottles; we heard how the former Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), got his pandemic strategy from the “Contagion” movie; and we saw how the former Chancellor and current Prime Minister was on the receiving end of a fixed penalty fine over partygate. In fact, 100 of these fines were issued to officials and politicians at the heart of government, and investigations are not over yet. This was a culture of not just bending the rules, but shattering them. Yet, right until this moment, Members such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) were being thrown out of this place for pointing out that Boris Johnson lied and lied and lied about these incidents, all while the liar himself was protected by procedure.
The fifth report of the Privileges Committee is forensic in its approach and has revealed a culture of entitlement that has eroded the very foundations of that which passes for democracy at Westminster. It says:
“The overall thrust of Mr Johnson’s evidence to the Committee has been to downplay the significance and narrow the scope of the assertions he made to the House.”
It uses words such as “disingenuous” and “misleading”. It talks of Mr Johnson using language that was
“contrary to common English usage”
and of his
“advancing an unsustainable interpretation of Guidance”.
The report’s tone is flat, completely professional and absolutely damning.
The report has also shed more light on behaviour that proves without doubt that it really was one rule for them, another rule for us. Since its publication, we have seen some clips that reveal the unbelievable arrogance of those posing for photos and being filmed dancing at Tory HQ, apparently on a day when it was announced that London was entering tier 3 restrictions—and some of those taking part have then been rewarded with honours. People died alone while No. 10 officials had Friday wine time. The reason these people spent their final moments alone was that they were following the orders of a Government who disregarded their own policies so blatantly, with suitcases filled with booze and with office karaoke machines being ignored as they were wheeled in. And then Boris Johnson lied about it.
Paragraph 210 of the report is scathing. It states:
“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.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that the outpouring we have seen on social media of people sharing the pain of instances of a daughter lost to suicide, or of funerals of those close to them that they could not attend, shows that these scars are not going to disappear in people’s lifetimes? So is the demand to move on and the trivialisation of this matter not just the final insult?
I completely agree. The stories I have seen on social media and heard from constituents are utterly heartbreaking. The report vindicates every single person who made immense personal sacrifices during the pandemic. I am extremely grateful to the Committee and its officers for their work, particularly in such a hostile environment of relentless intimidation and insults.
One would like to think the Committee’s recommendations will ensure that such a monumental betrayal of public trust will never be undertaken so lightly again. However, Boris Johnson and his allies’ continued refusal to accept the findings and recommendations of the report is a further affront to the democratic process. In fact, the former Prime Minister’s relationship with the truth is so distorted, I am not sure whether he comprehends the depths of his own deception. Either that, or he still thinks he can play us all for fools. In that, at least, I would say the game is up.
We cannot risk reinforcing the message that those in positions of power can deny, dismiss and evade the consequences of their own actions. Instead, the House must now work to regain at least some of the trust it has already lost and safeguard the democratic process. To do otherwise would set an extremely dangerous precedent.
The report comes alongside the news that the Scottish Government have published plans for an independent Scotland to have a codified constitution, written by the people, for the people, and, crucially, holding our representatives accountable to the people. Not only would that constitution guarantee our human rights and an NHS free at the point of need, it would ensure that no Scottish Parliament would ever take so much time, during a cost of living crisis, figuring out how to discipline out-of-control politicians who like to push flimsy Westminster conventions to the absolute limit. I note that over the weekend Mr Johnson may have tested that again, by again breaching the ministerial code with the announcement of his latest side job.
This mess is also about a party that ignored the obvious failings of a man because it thought he could win it power. I have read that many Members on the Government Benches plan to abstain, terrified of those among their constituents who are, unfortunately, still taken in by the clown prince, the former Prime Minister, playing the buffoon for them. He has, of course, jumped ship and escaped the censure of the House, but we need to turn our gaze on all the Members on the Government Benches who ignored his track record and indulged his behaviour and the obvious failings of the man, simply because they thought he could win them their seats.
My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech, as always.
They knew exactly the character of that man. They cheered on his buffoonery. It was them that foisted him upon our nation, and it is going to be them who will have to be held responsible and accountable for all the Johnson mess that he has left behind. We have four by-elections coming up in the next few weeks—three of them because of Johnson’s legacy. What does she think their chances are in those by-elections?
I never like to guess anything, but I would suggest that given the behaviour we have seen in recent weeks, those chances look pretty slim.
At the very least, Government Members should show some remorse for that cynicism, accept the recommendations of the report and vote to approve them. If they do not, I hope their cowardly refusal will dog them for the rest of their political lives. If ever there was a moment for them to stand up and be counted, it is now.
However, it is too much to expect apologies from all those who defended Johnson and kept him in his place. Unbelievably, the Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Jack), continues to support him, claiming he was not as unpopular in Scotland as was thought. The month before Johnson resigned as Prime Minister last year, an Ipsos MORI poll found that 83% of respondents had a negative view of him. If the Secretary of State for Scotland thinks opinions of the man have got better in Scotland since then, he has another think coming.
The Secretary of State for Scotland also claims, astoundingly, that the decisions Johnson took for Scotland will
“serve Scotland very well for decades to come”.
What a statement, when we consider the disastrous impact of the Brexit that Johnson was instrumental in persuading people to support on individuals and organisations up and down Scotland. Then there is the inadequacy of a replacement for EU funding, Treasury funds being ransacked like a sweetie jar to reward MPs, the Internal Market Act 2020, and the constant interference in devolved responsibilities. We are seeing the consequences of that with the UK Government effectively having a veto over legislation passed by our democratically elected Parliament in Scotland. The Secretary of State for Scotland is right in one way: Johnson’s toxic legacy of the decisions made by his Government and imposed on the Scottish people will certainly be affecting them for years to come, given Labour’s refusal to ditch Brexit in any Government that comes after this one.
As we know, some Members will not even be attending today’s debate. I hear that the Prime Minister is swithering —perhaps it is all a little too close to home given his own fixed penalty fine. What a spineless dereliction of the responsibilities of his office if he does not show active support for the Committee’s recommendations. The Committee’s conclusions are that Johnson deliberately misled the House and the Committee, breached confidence, impugned the Committee thereby undermining the democratic process of the House, and was complicit in the campaign of abuse and attempted intimidation of the Committee.
What of the Prime Minister’s mantra of integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level? This House must not only endorse the report in full, but recover the legal fees wasted on Boris Johnson’s lies, rescind the honours he bestowed in disgrace, and prevent a single penny more of public money entering his pocket. We have suffered enough at his hands and at the hands of his Government. Boris Johnson lied to Parliament, deliberately misled the country and has shown no remorse for his behaviour. While time, money and energy have been spent on examining what was a self-evident truth a long time ago, the cost of living crisis continues to balloon and our constituents are suffering.
Is it not shameful and depressing, Mr Speaker, that it has taken this prolonged, detailed scrutiny by the Privileges Committee to force some Conservative Members finally to admit to Johnson’s faults? It is shocking that, even now, some of them are refusing to accept its conclusions. Scotland deserves better than this corrupt, outdated Westminster system that allows the likes of Johnson to rise to the top. I fear that even these recommendations from the Committee, decisive as they are, will not prevent the same from happening in the future. I worry that some Conservative MPs think that, by accepting the recommendations and taking some medicine, this will all go away again, and that cannot be allowed to happen.
In conclusion, yes, it is clearly beyond time that Westminster abandons the damaging traditions that protect those who lie in Parliament, reforms protocol, and enables MPs to accurately hold Ministers to account. All Members of the House should of course vote for the Committee’s recommendations. The question is this: is anything going to change—really change—on the back of the report. If Parliament fails to reform after this most egregious and obvious case, it will just prove that Westminster is incapable of even the most basic scrutiny of power, reform, or improvement. Are we confident that standards here will keep other Ministers to account when they stand up at the Dispatch Box? I am afraid that I am not.
I do not intend to dwell on the events covered in the report of the Committee of Privileges or its conclusions. It is a rigorous report and I accept its findings. I do wish to comment on the role of the Committee, the role of this House and the importance of today’s debate and vote for our political life, this Parliament and our democracy.
It is not easy to sit in judgment on friends and colleagues. One day we are judging their behaviour, the next day we may be standing next to them in the queue in the Members’ Tea Room. I know that it is not easy because, as Prime Minister, I had to take decisions based on judgments about the behaviour of friends and colleagues—decisions that affected their lives and, potentially, their careers. But friendship and working together should not get in the way of doing what is right.
I commend members of the Privileges Committee for their painstaking work and for their dignity in the face of slurs on their integrity. The House should, as the Leader of the House said, thank all of them for their service and for being willing to undertake the role. Particular thanks should go to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) for being willing to stand up to chair the Committee when the hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant) rightly recused himself. This Committee report matters, this debate matters and this vote matters. They matter because they strike at the heart of the bond of trust and respect between the public and Parliament that underpins the workings of this place and of our democracy.
The Leader of the House spoke about representing Portsmouth; I returned early from Portsmouth today from a Defence Committee meeting to be here to vote in support of this report.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, even though Boris Johnson’s having absented himself from the House makes the report to some degree academic, the nation—who put us here—wants us to ensure that the process reaches its conclusion? I repeat that I will support the report today.
I am pleased to hear from the Chairman of the Defence Committee that he will support the report. I think he can take it from the fact that I just said that the Committee report matters, the debate matters and this vote matters that I think people want to see us come to a conclusion today.
If people see us making rules for them and acting as if they are not for us, that trust that I spoke about between the public and Parliament is undermined. If they see Members of this House trying to save the careers of friends who have been clearly found by due process to be guilty of wrongdoing, as happened in the case of Owen Paterson, their respect for us is eroded. Without that trust and respect, their faith in our very parliamentary democracy is damaged.
As MPs, we are in some sense leaders in our communities, but with that leadership comes responsibility. We each and every one of us bear the responsibility to put the people that we serve first, to be honest with them and with one another, and to uphold the standards of this place. We all know that in the rough and tumble of parliamentary debate between people of opposing views there will be exaggeration, careful use of facts and, in some cases, misrepresentation, but when something is said that is wrong and misleads the House, we are all—not just Ministers—under an obligation not to repeat it and to correct it at the first opportunity. Above all, we are all responsible for our own actions. Beyond that, this House has a responsibility to ensure that standards are upheld by showing that we are willing to act against the interests of colleagues when the facts require it. In this case, I believe they do.
The decision of the House on the report is important: to show the public that there is not one rule for them and another for us; indeed, we have a greater responsibility than most to uphold the rules and set an example. The decision also matters to show that Parliament is capable of dealing with Members who transgress the rules of the House—if you like, to show the sovereignty of Parliament. Following an unsettling period in our political life, support for the report of the Privileges Committee will be a small but important step in restoring people’s trust in Members of this House and of Parliament.
I say to Members of my own party that it is doubly important for us to show that we are prepared to act when one of our own, however senior, is found wanting. I will vote in favour of the report of the Privileges Committee and I urge all Members of this House to do so—to uphold standards in public life, to show that we all recognise the responsibility we have to the people we serve and to help to restore faith in our parliamentary democracy.
It is a privilege to follow the serious and important speech of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), every word of which I agreed with.
The evidence on which our conclusions are based is fully set out in the report. I want to place on record the great debt of gratitude that I believe the House owes to the Clerks of the House, to Speaker’s Counsel and to Sir Ernest Ryder. The quality of their work and their dedication to the House is extraordinary. They are public servants of quite remarkable calibre.
The evidence shows that, on a matter that could hardly have been of more importance, Mr Johnson deliberately misled the House, not just once but on numerous occasions. The evidence shows that he denied what was true, asserted what was not true, obfuscated and deceived. It is clear that he knew the rules and guidance: as Prime Minister, he was telling the country about them nearly every day. He knew that there were gatherings: he was there. He knew that the gatherings breached the rules and the guidance. Yet he told the House that the rules and the guidance were followed in No. 10 “at all times”.
Misleading the House is not a technicality but a matter of great importance. Our democracy is based on people electing us to scrutinise the Government, and, on behalf of the people we represent, we have to hold the Government to account. We cannot do that if Ministers are not truthful. Ministers must be truthful; if they are not, we cannot do our job. It is as simple and as fundamental as that. The House asked the Privileges Committee to inquire into the allegations that Mr Johnson, who was then Prime Minister, misled the House. That is the mechanism—the only mechanism—that the House has to protect itself in the face of a Minister misleading it. We undertook the inquiry, scrupulously sticking to the rules and processes laid down by this House under Standing Orders, and following the precedents of this House.
I wonder whether the right hon. and learned Lady could say something of her own position in relation to the precedent set by a judicial Committee of the House of Lords, when a decision in which Lord Hoffmann was involved was set aside not because he was biased, but because of the perception of bias. In relation to her famous tweets, how does she think she met the Hoffmann test?
I am happy to answer the right hon. Gentleman. I was appointed by this House in the expectation that I would chair the Committee, with no one speaking against it. After the tweets were brought to light and highlighted, as I am concerned about the perception of fairness on the Committee—I agree that perception matters—I made it my business to find out whether it would mean that the Government would not have confidence in me if I continued to chair the Committee. I actually said, “I will be more than happy to step aside, because perception matters and I do not want to do this if the Government do not have confidence in me. I need the whole House to have confidence in the work that it has mandated.” I was assured that I should continue the work that the House had mandated, and with the appointment that the House had put me into, and so I did just that.
Our report was based on two things: the evidence and our keen awareness of the seriousness of misleading the House. The Committee was unanimous that a sanction that would trigger the Recall of MPs Act was justified in the light of our conclusion that Mr Johnson deliberately misled the House and the Committee. We then felt it necessary to increase the sanction to 90 days to reflect the seriousness of his breaching of the confidence of the Committee, his impugning of the Committee, thereby undermining the democratic process of the House, and his complicity in a campaign of abuse, attempting to intimidate the Committee, to stop us from carrying out our work and to discredit it.
Like the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, with whom I share a great deal—including, it turns out, a necklace—I thank every member of the Privileges Committee. Over the course of the past year, they have considered thousands of pages of evidence and participated in more than 30 meetings to do the job that the House asked them to do with outstanding dedication and commitment, particularly the Conservative members of the Committee, who have also had to be extraordinarily resilient. They have had to withstand a campaign of threats, intimidation and harassment designed to challenge the legitimacy of the inquiry, to drive them off the Committee and thereby to frustrate the intention of the House that the inquiry should be carried out. Yet through all that, they have not given in to the intimidation. They have been unflinching in their duty to the House, and we owe them a huge amount.
We need Members to be prepared to serve on the Privileges Committee. They must be free to base their judgments on the evidence, free from pressure one way or the other. If the House wants its rights to be protected in the future, it must act to stop intimidation of members of the Privileges Committee.
Attacks by hon. Members on other hon. Members designed to pre-empt the Committee’s findings frustrate the will of the House, erode public confidence and thereby undermine our democracy. They may themselves be contempt of the House, because they are attempts to impede the functioning of the House. We will make a further report to the House on that shortly, inviting consideration of what could be done to prevent it from happening in the future.
None of that is a threat to the free speech of Members. Members can engage in the process throughout: they can speak and vote against a referral to the Privileges Committee; they can speak and vote against the appointment of any member of the Privileges Committee; they can bring to the House proposals for changes to the procedure; and they can speak about a report’s conclusions, but what they must not do is interfere with the work the House has mandated.
The report does not create a chilling effect on what Ministers say at the Dispatch Box. If Ministers make a mistake, which inevitably happens, and inadvertently say something that is misleading, they are expected to correct it at the earliest opportunity, and that is done routinely. Inadvertent misleading, promptly corrected, is not an issue; it is the system working. The House understands it if Ministers decline to answer, for example, on matters of national security or market sensitivity.
Too many members of the public already think that we are dishonest, but hitherto I have found in my 40 years in this House that most Ministers, in all Governments, are at pains to tell the truth. The sanction in the report reinforces and upholds Ministers’ high standards and shows the public that that is the case.
The right hon. and learned Lady has referred to the wording “misleads”, which was in the original motion on 21 April 2022. That is not the wording of the resolution of 1997, which still pertains today and quite explicitly uses the words “knowingly misleads”. Does she not accept that there is a huge difference? That decision was made unanimously by the House and it is still in existence and still pertains.
I think the Committee found on the evidence that Mr Johnson knowingly and deliberately intended to mislead the House.
Because he was Prime Minister, Mr Johnson’s dishonesty, if left unchecked, would have contaminated the whole of Government, allowing misleading to become commonplace and thus eroding the standards that are essential for the health of our democracy. Far from undermining Ministers, the report does precisely the opposite.
I want to say something about the press. This episode has shown that wrongdoing has not gone undiscovered and attempts to cover it up have failed, but it would have been undiscovered had not the press doggedly investigated. Many journalists played their part, and Isb want in particular to mention Pippa Crerar and Paul Brand. Democracy needs a free press.
The House sent this inquiry to the Privileges Committee without a Division. It unanimously endorsed the membership of the Committee. We have done the work we were asked to do. This is the moment for the House, on behalf of the people of this country, to assert its right to say loud and clear: “Government will be accountable. Ministers will be honest. There is no impunity for wrongdoing. Even if you are the Prime Minister—especially if you are the Prime Minister—you must tell the truth to Parliament.” I urge all Members to support the motion.
The motion before the House today is of the utmost importance. Yes, it is about the behaviour of a Member, but there is also a huge degree of controversy about the process and the make-up of the Committee. I want to say from the outset that it is entirely reasonable for right hon. and hon. Members to have differing opinions on both the findings of the Committee and the sanctions imposed by it. However, where I part company with those who would vote against today’s motion is that I strongly believe this House must uphold the processes and Committees that we create.
As a former Leader of the House for two years during the 2017 to 2019 hung Parliament, when the harassment scandal hit this place, colleagues from every party—many of whom are in the Chamber today—and from the other place worked for the best part of a year to put together the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme. I certainly do not defend that scheme as being perfect; I myself have some grave concerns about how it has been implemented, which are not for discussion today. However, what I believe the original ICGS, as agreed by this House in July 2018, got right was to uphold the principle that those who are elected to this place should only ever be removed by those same electors. The second principle that underpinned the ICGS was that the House should be responsible for its own affairs, ensuring a collective responsibility to uphold standards and giving all Members the right to be judged by a group of their peers.
The Committee of Privileges, which is responsible for this fifth report and is the subject of today’s debate, has in my opinion been entirely properly established, and has carried out its duties with great care and with every opportunity for the provision of both evidence and opinion to be taken into account. I thank all members of that Committee, and congratulate them on what I am certain will have been an exhaustive, and exhausting, process.
I remind colleagues, the vast majority of whom will have been involved in cross-party Committees such as Select Committees and inquiries, to recall that all the participants on a Committee have an equal voice, and that this particular Committee—with its majority of Government Members—simply cannot reasonably be accused of political bias. Our Standing Orders, while far from perfect, ensure that Members are judged by a politically balanced group of their peers, and that the ultimate sanction available to them gives the right and the obligation to that Member’s own electors to decide whether to call a by-election in the first place. If that 10% threshold is met, it is for those voters to return or reject that Member.
What is the alternative to our Privileges Committee? The only alternative is a Committee made of non-Members. That might address the fears about political bias, but surely the risk of lay members having their own agendas is also great, and with lay members there is a vital constitutional issue around unelected people having the power to dismiss those who are elected. If we do not uphold this crucial principle of our democracy, we risk undermining the preferences of voters by appointing unelected assessors to wield power. That would be a dramatic change to one of the world’s greatest and longest-lived democracies, and we would effectively be saying that we are unable to govern ourselves, overturning a precedent that is hundreds of years old. That is a reality that many right across the country would be deeply uncomfortable with.
In my opinion, the time to challenge the make-up or the proceedings of the Committee of Privileges for its fifth report is long past. Colleagues with concerns about that Committee quite rightly raised those concerns before the House instructed the Committee in April 2022, but they were overruled by a significant democratic majority. The procedures and processes of this House are in constant need of review and reform—of that, there can be no doubt. However, we must make sure that a proper process of reform is followed, not seek to rewrite the process at the eleventh hour because some do not like the conclusions.
For my own part, I will be supporting today’s motion to approve the fifth report. I am sad that it has come to this, and I am particularly sorry to all of my constituents who have written to tell me that they kept the rules when others clearly did not. I urge all Members across the House to approve this motion without a Division.
I rise to support the recommendations in the fifth report of the Privileges Committee on the conduct of Boris Johnson. They should be accepted in full, and they should be supported by all Members of this House who wish to uphold our democratic institutions and our system of parliamentary democracy itself. That is especially the case after the former Prime Minister’s disgraceful reaction to the draft report last weekend.
The Committee’s conclusions are very clearcut and they are unanimous. The Committee has concluded that the most senior member of the Government, a sitting Prime Minister, engaged in very serious contempt and wrongdoing, which is worthy of the very long suspension that was to be recommended as punishment. He leaves the House in disgrace, spewing Trump-like conspiracy theories and attacking the integrity of the parliamentary system he has done so much to bring into disrepute.
This report is not about so-called partygate, although the gravest civilian crisis since the second world war, which took 230,000 lives, is the sombre backdrop against which the Prime Minister’s wrongdoing took place; it is about Parliament’s requirement that Government Ministers tell the truth, so that they can be held to account for their actions. Parliamentary accountability lies at the heart of our democratic system.
Serious matters concerning Boris Johnson’s lack of ability to tell the truth were referred to the Committee for investigation by a unanimous decision of the whole House on 21 April 2022. That was when Boris Johnson was still the Prime Minister, and it is therefore safe to assume that he consented to this course of action. The Committee was then constituted—as is customary, as we have heard—with a Government majority, but chaired by an Opposition Member. In this case, it was my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who is a distinguished and long-serving Member of this House. She is also a lawyer. There were no objections at that stage to any Member who was asked to serve on the Committee for the purpose of investigation. Had there been such an objection, the Government could have used their majority to change the personnel who had been asked to conduct the inquiry. They did not, and the membership of the Committee was agreed unanimously by the House.
Fourteen months of painstaking and forensic work later, the Committee has produced its excoriating verdict in the report we are debating today. It is a damning verdict, and one that I believe the whole House must not only note, but vote to accept. I will comment on the findings of the report later, but I first wish to make a few further observations about the importance of today’s proceedings.
Boris Johnson and his acolytes have engaged in a systematic attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the Committee and its work for their own purposes. They claim it is unfair and biased against the former Prime Minister. They claim that the individuals are biased and that the procedure is biased, but anyone who has read the report and seen the painstaking way in which the Committee went about its investigation will know that this is false. As the Committee itself points out, comparisons between the inquisitorial nature of the Committee’s proceedings and those of an adversarial court of law are “fallacious”.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the way my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) dealt with the allegations against her of bias, as she explained earlier, and the reaction of Boris Johnson are in sharp contrast? Does that not just tell us everything we need to know about this report and the consequences of it?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. I also think we must commend the honour and steadfastness of all members of the Committee of Privileges who have been put under enormous pressure during this process. The House of Commons has its own rules and regulations, which it must police itself as the courts rightly have no jurisdiction over those. As the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) explained, the courts do not have jurisdiction over this Parliament, and that is to protect Parliament, and by extension our democracy, from being subverted or undermined by outside pressure from the powerful. To portray that inquisitorial procedure as inherently unfair is simply not credible.
Let us see what happens at the end of today’s debate to see whether the system has worked. It is being challenged, and we have to accept that and respond to that challenge, which I hope we will in this debate. Despite the hysterical reactions to the contrary, it is important to state, as the Leader of the House did in her remarks, that this was a properly constituted senior Committee of the House. It was asked to do a difficult but vital job, and it discharged its duties with integrity and honour. It is now our duty to ensure that we support the members of that Committee, and support the conclusions that they came to after that detailed work.
I also believe that we should thank the members of the Committee of Privileges, because they have done the House of Commons a great service under the most intense pressure. Instead of being thanked, they have found themselves traduced in the Boris Johnson-worshipping print and TV media, which has called into question their motives and their very integrity, and it has been egged on in that disgraceful behaviour by the former Prime Minister himself. It is beneath contempt for serving Members of this House and the ex-Prime Minister to accuse the Committee of being a “kangaroo court” or being “biased” against him. In my view, all those who have made such baseless accusations should themselves be referred to the Committee of Privileges for contempt of this House.
As the Committee points out, this inquiry goes to the heart of the democratic system in this country. This House exists to pass law, and also to hold the Government of the day accountable for their actions. For that crucial purpose to be fulfilled, the House assumes that any Minister tells the truth to Parliament. Inadvertent errors can and must be corrected at the earliest opportunity, but we cannot work if we have rogue Ministers lying on the Floor of this House with impunity. In deciding to resign prior to the publication of the report, Boris Johnson has heaped further opprobrium upon himself. He broke confidentiality by leaking the provisional report, ahead of its being finalised, for his own ends. He fled the judgment of his fellow MPs in a Chamber that contains a large Conservative majority. He ran away from the judgment of his constituents in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, without attempting to defend himself to them. He used his considerable public platform to make outrageous accusations of bias against the Committee members, who have had to be provided with extra security as a result. Allies of his have threatened any Conservative MP who supports the report with a confidence vote and deselection in their local constituency parties.
According to reports over the weekend, Boris Johnson believes that he left Parliament in a “blaze of glory”. He has left in disgrace. He has run from accountability for his lies and untruths. There has been no self-reflection, no apology, no acceptance of a shred of responsibility, just the narcissistic howl of a man-child who will not see that he has only himself to blame. So egregious and so damaging for public trust in our democracy are Boris Johnson and his cheerleaders’ actions that it is now imperative that this report is accepted.
All MPs from the Prime Minister down must be seen to be upholding the integrity, professionalism and accountability required to ensure that our system operates, and we must unite to defend truth-telling and punish those who believe they can lie with impunity. That is why this is not merely a symbolic debate, the former Prime Minister having fled the scene of the crime. He clearly harbours designs to make a comeback, having fled accountability and a reckoning, which is why we must support the bravery of those we ask to serve on the Privileges Committee by actively endorsing their recommendations. Mass abstention in tonight’s vote on the Conservative side would be a total dereliction of their duty, and that includes the Prime Minister. I hope that we will see all of them in the Lobby tonight voting to defend the integrity of this Parliament and our democracy.
I have to speak in the House today because I cannot see where the evidence is that Boris Johnson misled Parliament knowingly, intentionally or recklessly. [Interruption.] I am from Grimsby, and I have to say it as I see it. [Interruption.]
I have to say it as I see it, because that is what my constituents would want me to do. [Hon. Members: “Have you read the report?”] Yes, I have read it, and I think that is an appalling question to ask a Member in this House. The reality is that Boris Johnson did not knowingly or intentionally mislead the House. [Interruption.] If people would like to listen, the reason I say that is last year, for six months, I was one of Boris Johnson’s Parliamentary Private Secretaries. I was the only Member of Parliament who was with him for the whole day on the publication of the Sue Gray report.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, but I am aiming my speech at members of the public who have got more interesting things to do than to spend their time reading the whole of the report, as I unfortunately did. I suggest that people go to pages 85 to 88 and read the quotes. The reality is that there were some people who had parties, but sadly those people were unelected officials who still should have stood by, making sure that they were not putting Ministers potentially in difficult situations by advising them incorrectly.
The Prime Minister led all of those people. He was the team leader for all those working at No. 10 and in the Cabinet Office who were at those parties. During lockdown, I volunteered at West Middlesex Hospital, taking food to the wards because the staff working in them were not allowed to go to the canteen. They certainly were directed by the chief executive of the hospital trust that they could have no parties—not even leaving parties, not even wine Fridays. They had no parties for that whole period. Does the hon. Member have any comprehension of what her constituents in the same position were feeling like when they heard the evidence?
No, I will not give way at the moment. Those people advised the then Prime Minister again and again that no rules were broken and that guidance was followed at all times. Everybody in this place knows that no Minister stands at the Dispatch Box and knowingly misleads. They have to take counsel from people who advise them, many of whom are giving legal advice that they know to be the truth, but the public do not necessarily know that that is the case. If you are a Prime Minister and you are advised in that way again and again, no matter how you question that advice, you have to stand at the Dispatch Box and give those statements, because that is what you have been legally advised to do. People may not like that, but that is the truth, and that is why I am standing here and saying this.
The sad thing is, many people who gave that advice are still working in and around No. 10 and Whitehall, but we do not know who they are because they are not a high-profile politician.
I wonder whether the hon. Lady might reflect that it sounds like she is trying to deflect blame from Boris Johnson and put it on to unelected members of staff, and that people here and people at home may find that, to put it mildly, rather unedifying.
I thank the hon. Lady. What I would say, actually, is that I have had the privilege to work with many unelected officials—special advisers and civil servants —who have been professional, worked hard and been good at giving accurate advice, but, from the evidence in the report, we all know that there were those who did not. We cannot shy away from that; we know that is the case.
To build slightly on my hon. Friend’s point, the report needs to be narrow in scope—it is about what the Prime Minister said to this House—but I draw her attention to paragraph 20 on page 71, which seeks to go much further than that. It talks about not what the former Prime Minister Boris Johnson said but about the interpretation given to that by Members of this House, by the media and by the public. The former Prime Minister cannot be held responsible for what people thought he may have meant; if the report is to hold any water, he should be held responsible for what he said.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thank my right hon. Friend for identifying that. Of course, he is absolutely right. I have to say that I do respect the amount of hard work put into the report, but if, in my former job as a college lecturer, I was grading this, I would say it is not impartial. It says Boris Johnson “claimed” and Boris Johnson “purported”, and that is not impartial language. Therefore, in my opinion, the report is not impartial in the way it is written.
To go back to my original point, on the day that the Sue Gray report was published, the Prime Minister was horrified to read what had been going on, and at no time did anybody on oath give evidence to this inquiry that they reported that there were parties or rule-breaking to the Prime Minister. Now, some people might say, “Well, he lived in No. 10—he should have known.” Actually, those people who have worked in No. 10 will know that it is a rabbit warren of rooms with thick walls, the people working there are running the country and the Prime Minister is not the caretaker of the building. It is not the Prime Minister’s job to go round, look in rooms and decide who may be working and who may not be working. In fact, the Sue Gray report did state that unelected officials were rude to doorkeepers and staff, yet given that No. 10 is full of police officers and security people, if the rules were being broken and that was seen, why did nobody report that to the Prime Minister so that he was aware of it?
The hon. Lady made the very good point that the Prime Minister at the time was not the caretaker of No. 10. However, he was the caretaker of the nation’s health, the nation’s wellbeing and the nation’s trust. In that, he let people down and he misled this House, and that is why the report came up with the conclusions that it did.
No, I do not believe that he did. I think I am a very good person who can see character, and I saw what was going on in and around No. 10 on that day. Sadly, I believe that some unelected officials—many are very good and professional—made a choice not to inform the then Prime Minister because they wanted to cover their own backs. I am very sad to say that.
Is the hon. Lady aware that, in 2019, Max Hastings, the editor of The Daily Telegraph and a Tory, said about Boris Johnson:
“Johnson would not recognise truth, whether about his private or political life, if confronted by it in an identity parade”?
Is not the truth that Boris has lied for so long and so often that it can come as no surprise that he is lying in this instance?
I am not a Conservative party grandee. I am not somebody who has followed Boris Johnson’s political or other career for a long time. I am somebody who came here to serve my constituency and my constituents, who are the reason I am here. The majority of them supported Boris Johnson, his policies and his vision for the country.
Sadly, the whole saga in and out of the media is becoming a kind of political opportunism for those people who do not like Boris Johnson’s approach, do not like Boris Johnson’s policies and do not like Boris Johnson’s plan. I have to say that that is not what I am getting on the doorstep. Perhaps if the Opposition had a plan and had the people, they might have a chance of getting into government some time soon. This is about people who want a formidable opponent out of their way, because they do not believe that they will get into government in any other way. That is my stance.
May I first thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman)? I should probably thank her more than anybody in the Chamber because the wisest thing I have ever done in my political career has been to recuse myself from chairing the Committee. She has done an absolutely admirable job. I also thank all the Committee members—as has often been referred to, the Conservative members in particular. I will not go into the other matters that, for other reasons, the Committee Chair referred to, about privilege and whether this should be referred back. I simply point out that I know all the Conservative members of the Committee because they are also on the Standards Committee. They do a wonderful job every single time.
The former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), was right to say that it is very difficult to sit in judgment on your colleagues, including your opponents. That is not actually any easier than sitting in judgment on people who have sat on the same Benches as you or have been in the same party as you. But let’s face it: Boris Johnson lied. He said the guidance was followed completely. It wasn’t. He said that the rules and guidance were followed at all times. They weren’t. And I take the plain meaning of his words. You do not have to investigate any further—just the plain meaning will do. He said he had repeated assurances. He didn’t. He misrepresented the facts as he knew them. Meanwhile, people died in isolation, lost their livelihood—we often forget that bit—or missed out on a wedding or another very important moment in their family life because they abided by the rules. They thought that the big truth of the pandemic was that we were all in this together. That is why there is visceral anger. I hear it often from those who think that some people did not abide by the rules and that those were the people who wrote the rules.
This is not a single instance of accidentally mis-speaking either. Many Members have said that of course that happens. We have a proper process, which we have had since 2007, for a Minister to correct the record. Interestingly, the only time Mr Johnson corrected the record as a Minister was when he said that Roman Abramovic had been sanctioned and realised that he had not been sanctioned. So a Russian oligarch is perhaps more important than other matters. Yes, Mr Johnson was careless—reckless, you could say—about the truth, but far, far worse than that, he deliberately, intentionally and with knowledge aforethought sought to cover his tracks. It was a pattern of behaviour, a string of lies. And I do not much care for the version of the debate today which says, “Oh, it was all junior officials and they should be thrown under the bus” or “It was the fault of the police because they did not bother to report it or deal with it.”
The thing is that, sometimes when you try to take the spade off somebody when they are digging the hole, they are absolutely determined to take it back and bring a pitchfork and a JCB to the process as well.
Mr Johnson says he has been brought down by a witch hunt, but in all honesty the only person who brought down Mr Johnson was Mr Johnson and I suspect he knows that. I think that this House feels that he should be ashamed of himself and that will be what it concludes later today, but I fear that he remains completely shameless.
Is the sanction proportionate? Of course, it is very difficult to sanction somebody who has already taken the option of running away from this House and from facing the music here or for that matter in their constituency. But that is still important. What we debate today is not an academic matter. That is not a criticism—
We all now know very clearly, if we did not know before, that this is not academic. I am afraid that many people on the Conservative Benches will treat it as academic because Boris has left the building. That is wrong. I have learnt that as well. That is why I am back here. It is important that colleagues follow the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), and indeed the Leader of the House and vote to support the motion today.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have looked around for some parallels for what can be done about a Member who has already left the House by the time the Privileges Committee, the Standards and Privileges Committee, the Standards Committee or the Independent Expert Panel has adjudicated. The only one I can find is Sir Michael Grylls, the former Member of Parliament for North West Surrey, who was involved in the Ian Greer-Mohammed al-Fayed cash for questions row in the 1990s. He stood down in the 1997 general election so he was not an MP by the time the Standards and Privileges Committee reported on him. It said, categorically, in relation to the question of whether lying to Parliament is a contempt that
“Deliberately misleading a Select Committee is certainly a contempt of the House…Were Sir Michael Grylls still a Member we would recommend a substantial period of suspension from the service of the House, augmented to take account of his deceit.”
That is precisely, following precedent, what the Privileges Committee has done in its report. The truth is that Mr Johnson, as Prime Minister, was a senior and long-standing Member of the House. It was not the first time he got into trouble with either the standards system in the House or the rules. He has shown absolutely no contrition. He chose to attack, intimidate and bully the Committee, which could indeed be a breach of the rules in itself. Everything he did fell far, far short of the standards that this House and the public are entitled to expect of any Member.
I just want to say a few words about the process. The House has always claimed, as the Leader of the House said in her excellent speech, exclusive cognisance; that is to say, apart from the voters and the criminal law, the only body that can discipline, suspend or expel a duly elected Member of the House is the House of Commons in its entirety. I still hold to that principle. It is why any decision or recommendation to suspend or expel a Member that comes from the Standards Committee or the Independent Expert Panel has to be approved by the whole House. It is also why the only way to proceed when there is an allegation that a Member has committed a contempt of Parliament, for instance by misleading the House, is via a Committee of the House and a decision of the whole House. That is why we have to have the motion today and had to have the Committee on Privileges. It cannot, I believe, be a court of law. It has to be a Committee of the House. I do not think some commentators have fully understood that, including Lord Pannick and some former Leaders of the House.
I say to those who have attacked the process that they should be very careful of what they seek. There are those who would prefer lying to Parliament to be a criminal offence, justiciable and punishable by the courts, but that would drive a coach and horses through the Bill of Rights principle that
“freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.”
So I am left feeling that those who attack the process simply do not believe that there should be any process for determining whether a Member has lied to the House. As I have said before, I kind of admire the personal loyalty, but I dislike the attitude because it is in effect an excuse for appalling behaviour.
I am most grateful to the Chairman of the Standards Committee. He and I took part in the debate, as he will well remember perhaps, on 21 April 2022. I raised the question of “knowingly misleads” because it was not included in the original motion, which was then passed, which led to the reference to the Committee on Privileges. In the course of the debate, I raised—I think with him directly, but he certainly made the remark, for which I pay credit—the fact that intention is at the heart of this question. If we knock out the word “knowingly”, we knock out the intention as well and that is a fundamental question of process on which I will, if I catch your eye Madam Deputy Speaker, want to refer.
I am going to ferociously agree with the hon. Gentleman. I said earlier that Mr Johnson knowingly lied to Parliament and that is what the Committee has concluded. There was a point at which people thought they would only consider “recklessly” but they found that he knowingly, with knowledge aforethought, misled Parliament and was deliberately duplicitous. I think the hon. Gentleman’s point is destroyed—
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash). The hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant) is absolutely right—we must maintain exclusive cognisance—but that does not mean we should not follow a proper process and a fair process, or admit that this is ostensibly political.
The word “political” can cover a multitude of sins, can’t it? We are talking about the politics of the nation. I would argue that trying to defend the constitutional principle that Ministers always tell the truth to Parliament and that, if they have inadvertently misled the House, they correct the record as soon as they possibly can, is an important part of ensuring our political health in this nation, but I do not think that the process was unfair. Most of our constituents, if they go to a tribunal nowadays, have no representation paid for by the taxpayer. Mr Johnson had, I think, more than £250,000-worth of representation provided by the taxpayer.
The membership of the Committee was agreed by the whole House when—I think I might be right in saying this—the right hon. Gentleman was Leader of the House.
I am wrong; I apologise. However, it is certainly the case that the whole House agreed that membership, fully knowing everything that had been said up until that moment. Three members of the Committee had sat on a previous case in relation to Mr Johnson that came to the Standards Committee. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards had found against Mr Johnson, but we, the Committee, found in his favour. I therefore do not think that this was in any sense a biased Committee. Let me also say that anyone who thinks that Speaker’s Counsel, or, for that matter, Sir Ernest Ryder, who ran the whole of the tribunals service in England and Wales, would not stand up for a fair hearing and due process is misleading themselves, and doing so almost recklessly.
I am tempted not to give way to the hon. Gentleman. I am very hopeful that he will have an opportunity to speak to the House fully a bit later.
Some people have attacked the process for a different reason, and I understand the nature of that attack. They say that Johnson won a general election, and they argue that only voters should therefore be allowed to remove him from office. I passionately disagree with that view, because I hold a different understanding of democracy. It
“does not mean, ‘We have got our majority, never mind how, and we have our lease of office for five years, so what are you going to do about it?’ That is not democracy, that is only small party patter, which will not go down with the mass of the people of this country.”
Members may recognise those words. They are not mine; they are Churchill’s, addressed to the Labour Government in 1947. He went on:
“there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters.”—[Official Report, 1 November 1947; Vol. 444, c. 206-7.]
I agree, and that is why I think it important to note that public opinion on this matter is extremely clear. Most people think Johnson lied. A few of them do not think that that matters very much, but most of them do. Most of them think that Ministers who lie should be removed and punished, and being truthful is the one quality that they seek above all else in a Member of Parliament.
Harold Wilson said, in a debate in the House when John Profumo had just been forced to resign for lying:
“The sickness of an unrepresentative sector of our society should not detract from the robust ability of our people as a whole to face the challenge of the future. And in preparing to face that challenge, let us frankly recognise that the inspiration and the leadership must come first here in this House.”—[Official Report, 17 June 1963; Vol. 679, c. 54.]
Leadership means taking a stance. Abstention is a failure of leadership. I believe that today is a good day for democracy. We have remarkably few checks and balances in our system, and the only real check is the collective conscience of the Members of this House. That is the burden of our elected office, and I pay tribute to Conservatives, and people of every party, who have had to face a difficult decision in relation to this. We exercise our conscience on behalf of our constituents. Edmund Burke said that the most important thing we owe our constituents is our conscience. Thereby we tarnish or we burnish the reputation of Parliament. So let us assert today that no one is above the law and the rules apply to all, because every abstention is another excuse. I repeat Wilson’s words: the leadership must come first here in this House.
Order. There are still a great many Members who want to contribute to the debate. I would advise that if they speak for about 10 minutes each, we will probably be able to get everyone in with equal amounts of speaking time.
I rise as one who, if there is to be a vote on this motion tonight, will vote in support of the Committee of Privileges, but let me share with the House my sincere hope that there will not be a vote, because there should not be a vote. We should remind ourselves that the Committee was set the task on a Government motion when Boris Johnson was Prime Minister, and that the motion passed through the Commons unopposed. I add my thanks to the Committee’s members for a diligent and, no doubt, at times difficult task, which they carried out at the request of the House.
It is customary for MPs to accept the recommendations of such a report without a vote, but, as I have said, if there is a Division I will vote in support of the report. Its recommendations, unfortunately, chime in many respects with my own view that Boris Johnson knowingly misled Parliament, which is why I withdrew my support from him—the then Prime Minister—in May last year, and asked him in a meeting to retire at that stage with, perhaps, a modicum of grace. Sadly, I continue to believe that he knowingly misled Parliament, as the report has duly concluded.
This debate—and the vote, if there is a vote—is terribly important. It is of the utmost importance that we attach due deliberation to what it represents. Our parliamentary system compares well with others, and is the beating heart of our democracy. A central component of this system depends on Ministers telling the truth at the Dispatch Box. Indeed, the ability of the legislature to question the Executive can be properly executed only if Ministers tell the truth at the Dispatch Box; if they do not, accountability is impossible, and then we are on a very slippery slope.
No party, no individual, no ego, is bigger than Parliament. It is the very system that safeguards our freedoms, and through which we try to create a more prosperous, fairer society, regardless of party. History will be very unkind to anyone who impugns its integrity. Members who are found to have knowingly misled the House bring it, and by extension other Members, into public disrepute, and that does nothing for the dignity and calling of politics. Indeed—and this, perhaps, leads to a further point—if some Members maintain that we as Members cannot regulate ourselves, they are in effect asking for an independent body to do that job. The thought of unelected officials regulating the conduct of elected Members of this House should concern every parliamentarian, and that is why I think that, in many respects, today is a good day. As it should be, our Parliamentary system itself is putting right a wrong—or certainly I hope it will be doing so.
As we all know, the reason the rule-breaking in Downing Street during the pandemic resonated so strongly with the public is that the rest of us went through real pain during the lockdowns, at the instigation and compulsion of the then Prime Minister. I for one could not say goodbye to my beloved mother as she lay in hospital and passed away, because we were abiding by the rules, and I know that many, many people had similar experiences. To find that unlawful gatherings were taking place at the heart of government was bad enough, but that has been compounded by the failure of the then Prime Minister to be truthful to the House. It is simply not acceptable, and I know that those in this Chamber will find it to be unacceptable later this evening. Agreeing with the report’s recommendations is thus, in my view, an essential step in restoring standards in public life and to restoring the centrality of truthfulness to our parliamentary system.
Finally, I say to my Conservative colleagues that the last year or so that we have spent deliberating on the various aspects of partygate has served as a massive distraction from the otherwise good work that we have been doing on many fronts. It is time to put this to bed, and agreeing the report is the best way of doing that.
There are moments when we know that our parliamentary debates will form part of our nation’s history, and for the wrong reasons, today is such a moment. Everything that we do in Westminster—whether it is about addressing the crises facing our communities, from spiralling inflation to skyrocketing mortgage rates, or about strengthening support for the brave Ukrainians—all our actions, all our words, will only matter if we are trusted. That trust exists only if we tell the truth, especially when we are called to account for our decisions.
Confidence that this is a place where politicians are honest and accountable is completely central to the effectiveness and sustainability of any healthy democracy. Conversely, a culture where lies are ignored, tolerated or even excused is one that inevitably damages democracy. That is exactly the dangerous culture we saw nurtured under Boris Johnson. This is why the Privileges Committee report and its recommended sanctions are so important and why it is vital that everyone supports them in their entirety.
I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and all the members of the Privileges Committee for their forensic and painstaking work in sifting and evaluating the evidence. That evidence might not have been available but for the revelations first made by Pippa Crerar, so I pay tribute to Pippa for her work as one of the most talented journalists of our time.
The Committee’s conclusions are based entirely on evidence, and that evidence is incontrovertible. The attempt by a few people today to traduce the members of the Privileges Committee to delegitimise the process is utterly shameful.
I am conscious that the Chair of the Standards Committee, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant), said that we should not make too many comparisons with the criminal justice system, but the reality is that, in the criminal justice system, in which the burden of proof is beyond reasonable doubt, we ask jurors to look at the evidence and infer the actions and intent of the perpetrator. Does the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) agree that it is quite strange that some colleagues are looking for an even higher level of evidence than that?
That is an extremely interesting point, for which, as a non-lawyer, I thank the hon. Lady.
If it is true that attempts were made to bully and, yes, blackmail Privileges Committee members so that they came to conclusions that were not based on the evidence but prioritised Boris Johnson’s personal interests, that is shocking. The integrity of Parliament must come above all else. It takes courage to stand up against such political pressures, but showing integrity and leaving party tribalism at the door is absolutely vital if we are to uphold democracy and protect this place from a further erosion of trust.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point about integrity and the protection of this House. Young people have contacted me about this debate, which they are following. Does she agree that for a former Prime Minister to lie to the House and to the Privileges Committee, to seek to undermine the Committee and then to threaten parliamentarians who support the Committee’s findings is behaviour on which we must take a stand, in the interests of our constituents and the next generations? In voting for this motion today, it is important that we take this decisive stand on integrity, which will have an impact on confidence in this House for generations to come.
I agree, and I am pleased that the Privileges Committee will look at the conduct of some Members of both Houses in attempting to intimidate Committee members.
Today’s debate has to be considered as part of a bigger problem facing us. Over the past six years, we have seen consistent attacks on the fragile pillars that act as vital checks on Executive power. We have seen judges and judicial review denigrated; senior civil servants sacked for speaking truth to power; cronies appointed to key public positions; pals rewarded with honours and contracts; attempts to undermine the independence of the BBC; and our Parliament systematically bypassed. Boris Johnson allowed that creeping culture of corruption and unchecked executive power to infect our democracy.
Let us not beat about the bush: Boris Johnson did recklessly and deliberately mislead this House. His behaviour helped to support a culture that threatens our democracy. Today, I hope we are beginning to undo the damage that has been done. We are reaffirming the importance of Ministers and Prime Ministers being properly, honestly and truthfully accountable to Parliament and, through us, to the public.
Mr Johnson was not just called an “honourable” Member of this House; he led a major political party. He was our Prime Minister, yet he misled us time and time and time again, and he did so with impunity. Conservative Members knew this man before he became their leader. They knew he had been sacked as a journalist for lying. They knew he had been sacked from the Opposition Front Bench for lying. They knew he routinely bent the rules and misspent public money at City Hall. They knew he was a liar, yet they still made the terrible mistake of electing him as their leader.
So today, I hope that all Members of this House, and particularly Members on the Government Benches, do not make another terrible mistake by choosing either not to turn up or not to vote. This should not be about Conservatives versus Labour. Every parliamentarian needs to look at the evidence and ask themselves if they can honestly ignore the heaps of information that shows that Boris Johnson lied to us all, and through us, to the people in the country. I strongly urge every single Member of Parliament to walk through the Lobby and register their vote—a vote for the resolution, a vote that demonstrates our support for truth, justice and democracy.
It is perfectly reasonable to challenge the views of Select Committees of this House. It is neither eccentric nor, indeed, rare, so I should like to start with some of the things that I think are most contentious in the report, bordering on erroneous.
Let us start with paragraph 48, which makes reference to the fixed penalty notice received by Mr Johnson for the birthday party. It seems to think that the fixed penalty notice is, in fact, an admission of guilt. But in R v. Hamer, Lord Chief Justice Thomas said:
“It is quite clear that the issue of a notice is not a conviction. It is not an admission of guilt nor any proof that a crime has been committed. The scheme of the Act makes that clear. Any person reading the form would plainly understand that it is not to be regarded as a conviction and will not be held against him save in the respect mentioned. It seems therefore clear, both as a matter of the statutory scheme and as a matter of what a person accepting such a notice would reasonably be led to believe, that he was not admitting any offence, not admitting any criminality, and would not have any stain imputed to his character.”
Yet this report, against what a Lord Chief Justice says and against what is a principle of our criminal law, decides to impute a stain upon his character. It seems to me that this is quite clearly a deliberate attempt to take the most unfavourable interpretation of Mr Johnson’s activities, but this is not the only contentious paragraph.
Let us go to paragraph 83, which decides, as if it were an Elon Musk chip, to insert itself in the brain of Mr Johnson to work out what he must have thought at a particular moment. Well, I am glad to say that, as far as I am aware, Mr Johnson does not have one of these little chips stuck in his brain for the Committee’s benefit. Paragraph 83 says
“we conclude that Mr Johnson is unlikely to have been unaware”.
That is an obscure use of a double negative to try to impute malfeasance to somebody where the Committee cannot prove it. The Committee assumes something and imputes something because it wants to come to a particular conclusion.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and I refer him further to paragraph 182, on the line to take. Mr Johnson, as Prime Minister, was advised before Prime Minister’s questions to say that the rules had been followed at all times, and the report goes into great detail as to the authority for that advice—who had told him, whether they were senior enough and whether it was right—but it does not ask whether other Ministers were given the same briefing. Was this the cross-Government line to take, approved, as far as I could be aware, by all officials? Well, I can tell the House that, prior to business questions for the weeks when this was at the forefront of public interest, I was given the briefing that the rules had been followed at all times, with “at all times” emphasised. The only reason I did not say this to the House is because the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), the shadow Leader of the House, never had the wit to ask me the right question. If she had, the cross-Government line to take was absolutely clear, yet this report concludes that the Prime Minister, as he then was, was not advised by senior enough people—that they were involved in the press office. The idea that Ministers are not advised by people who work in communications shows quite how long the Opposition have been out of government.
Based on this tendentious reading of the facts, we come to the 90-day sanction. It is a vindictive sanction, it seems to me, that the Committee cannot implement because Mr Johnson has left Parliament, so the Committee goes from the vindictive to the ridiculous by not allowing him a parliamentary pass. Of all the trivial sanctions that could be imposed, that seems to be the most miserable. But the Committee emphasises in paragraph 229 that this sanction has been made more savage, more brutal and more vindictive because Mr Johnson impugned the Committee and undermined the democratic process.
On what basis? Is it thought that this House, when it comes to a conclusion, must be obeyed? Is it the case that we must not criticise the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 because it was passed by this great and noble House, or are we, in fact, allowed to criticise, as a fundamental of free speech, that which happens to us, that which is reported about us and that which is said of us? When a person is in court, they are allowed to say that the court has made a mistake. The protections of the junior courts, in which juries sit, are rightly very strict, but we can still say that the court has got it wrong. Indeed, we are allowed to say a court has got it so wrong that we may go to appeal. We do not have to kowtow but, for some reason, the Privileges Committee thinks it is in communist China and that we must kowtow. The report goes on to say that Mr Johnson was
“complicit in the campaign of abuse and attempted intimidation of the Committee”
without a single, solitary shred of evidence. It is pure assertion.
This leads me on to the issue of partiality. I was most intrigued by the response of the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) to my intervention. She said that she had told the Government, that it had all been approved and that it was fine and dandy. I refer her to paragraph 12 of her own report:
“Our guiding principles included being transparent.”
We suddenly discover, in this transparent approach, that there was a secret agreement that her involvement was all right. Well, I was in the Government at the time, and I never heard that this had happened, so it seems to me that it is important to examine the position in which the right hon. and learned Lady found herself. I note that the Committee does not do this in annex 1, which purports to answer appendix 3. I am sure the House is listening and following very carefully, but appendix 3 is the letter of Mr Johnson in response to the draft report. Fascinatingly, although paragraph 6 of appendix 3, on page 100, questions the impartiality of the Committee, annex 1 ignores that. Annex 1 answers lots of other points, but it rushes over this point, perhaps because the Committee thought it was on relatively thin ice.
The right hon. Gentleman called for me to recuse myself from the Committee. Did he ever ask my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) to recuse herself from the Committee before Boris Johnson started demanding it?
No, I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman, which seems to me to be sufficient.
Paragraph 9 of the report says:
“we leave our party interests at the door of the committee room”.
That is all very good, and it is to be encouraged, but it does not meet the Hoffmann test, which is important because the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords, like the Privileges Committee, was a Committee of Parliament following a judicial or, in this case, quasi-judicial process. I quote from its judgment:
“The contention is that there was a real danger or reasonable apprehension or suspicion that Lord Hoffmann might have been biased, that is to say, it is alleged that there is an appearance of bias not actual bias.
The fundamental principle is that a man may not be a judge in his own cause. This principle, as developed by the courts, has two very similar but not identical implications. First it may be applied literally: if a judge is in fact a party to the litigation or has a financial or proprietary interest in its outcome then he is indeed sitting as a judge in his own cause. In that case, the mere fact that he is a party to the action or has a financial or proprietary interest in its outcome is sufficient to cause his automatic disqualification. The second application of the principle is where a judge is not a party to the suit and does not have a financial interest in its outcome, but in some other way his conduct or behaviour may give rise to a suspicion that he is not impartial”.
That is the fundamental point, and it led to the Judicial Committee—for, I believe, the only time in its history—overturning a decision it had made. It is reasonable suspicion.
The judgment of Lord Nolan runs to only four lines. I will read out only two of them:
“I would only add that in any case where the impartiality of a judge is in question the appearance of the matter is just as important as the reality.”
This seems to be fundamental: the Judicial Committee followed a proper process, which the Privileges Committee did not.
I have slightly exceeded the time limit, but I will finish relatively swiftly. Fortunately, the previous two speakers were brief, which is encouraging.
I will not give way. Let us come to paragraph 14, on a special report, because this is important. Paragraph 194 cites the 1978 resolution of this House that its “penal jurisdiction” would be used
“sparingly…in order to provide reasonable protection for the House, its Members or its officers from improper obstruction or attempt at or threat of obstruction causing, or likely to cause, substantial interference with the performance of their respective functions.”
That does not mean criticism; it is absolutely legitimate to criticise the conduct of a Committee or its members—that is politics. Our politics is adversarial, which is one of the great strengths of our political system. It is open to us, within this Chamber, to accuse people, within the bounds of good order, of saying things that we disagree with. Outside this Chamber, freedom of speech is paramount; we are allowed to say what we like.
The House has historically tried to call people to the Bar—indeed, in past times it even imprisoned people—and it made the House look ridiculous. When John Junor was called to that Bar of the House because he had said in the Sunday Express that Members were fiddling their petrol coupons, it was not he who looked ridiculous but the House. We must defend the right of freedom of speech. Frankly, if politicians cannot cope with criticism, one wonders what on earth they are doing with a political career.
I have one final question, which arises from annex 1 and the answer to question 7, where it says that Sue Gray’s report was not important in this case. When the witnesses have come from Sue Gray’s report, it is odd then to say that her report was not important. It might also be interesting to know, in the interests of paragraph 12-style transparency, quite how many communications, private and public, the Chairman of the Committee had with Sue Gray.
Let me begin by commending the Privileges Committee and its report. I thank each and every member on it, both Conservative members and other members. They had an incredibly difficult task, and the pressure, media attention and scrutiny upon them were incredibly high. I thank them for the job that they have done.
Anybody who reads this incredibly detailed and in-depth report has to conclude that the reality is that Boris Johnson was a liar. There is no question here. Every time he stood up, I thought he was spewing out complete and unadulterated untruths in this Chamber. One would often be surprised that he was getting away with the things he was saying, but it is now proven that he is dishonest.
I have concerns about questions that are raised by this report. The public will wonder why on earth Boris Johnson was entitled to more than £250,000 in legal aid. There is no example of any other Member—any former or serving Minister—being before what used to be the Standards and Privileges Committee and receiving money from the taxpayer to pay lawyers. Johnson got 250,000 quid from the taxpayer and the Prime Minister allowed that to happen. I say to the Prime Minister that he should say no now. We know that Johnson is a liar and that he has been discredited, so the Prime Minister should force him to pay up himself. An ordinary member of the public who earns more than £12,570 does not get legal aid, and often they are facing very difficult legal proceedings. Boris Johnson has earned some £6 million since he left this place, and he has just done a deal with one newspaper for £1 million a year to write a column, most of which will undoubtedly be untruths. People do not understand how it is possible, especially in the circumstances of a cost of living crisis, for the taxpayer to be paying his legal bill.
The second point that people will be concerned about is the honours list. The very idea that somebody who has left here discredited, having been convicted by a Committee of the House of lying, should be entitled to put people in the House of Lords or give them honours from the King is just unfathomable to people, especially when we read at the weekend that some of those on his honours list were partying during lockdown. We saw boozy shenanigans at Tory HQ—what utter contempt for this country.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. On the revelations about the party that took place at Conservative party headquarters, as we all know, some of those people have been given honours by the former Prime Minister. Does he agree that those honours should be withdrawn?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The people, who are perhaps more important than us, will be wondering how on earth it is possible for liar Johnson to leave here and for the Prime Minister to nod through a list of honours for people who were boozing it up in Tory central office when others could not see dying relatives. It is utterly deplorable. As for anybody who thinks that that is all right, I suggest that they get out there, knock on doors and see what their electorate think of them.
Thirdly, Johnson gets £115,000 a year for his office costs. We are talking about 115,000 quid a year from the taxpayer to run an office to assist him as a former Prime Minister. People will not get that. They do not understand that. Let me warn Conservative Members that it will cost them at the ballot box. If we allow that nonsense to carry on, people will not be happy about it.
Fourthly, where is the Prime Minister when we are debating something so important? I was elected in 2010 and this is the most important piece of House business that I have witnessed. The very idea that a former Prime Minister has left here to avoid further scrutiny by this House, after a Committee of this place has found that he is a liar, is pretty deplorable, but the fact that the Prime Minister has not got the bottle to be here to say whether he agrees or disagrees with the Committee’s report is an absolute scandal. He should be ashamed of himself.
Finally, I do not know what happened during lockdown—I can speak only for myself and my family—but it is despicable, and it adds insult to injury, that Johnson alleged as he left, in a letter to the Chair of the Committee, that other parties were going on. In effect, he was imputing that of people in this place, one of whom was a member of the Committee. I do not know whether that is true—perhaps it is a matter for the Met police to investigate, I know not—but the fact that his parting gesture was to do that speaks to the fact that the man is a complete and utter disgrace and he should never get anywhere near this place again.
When I visit schools to discuss my work in Parliament, we often discuss speaking at the Dispatch Box, as I was honoured to do myself last year, although sadly only a handful of times, and what is in those boxes. As we all know, the boxes contain copies of religious texts, such as the Bible. Ministers do not speak under oath, so those texts are important reminders to them about the truth of what they say.
None of us is perfect—we all make mistakes. Ministers are charged with remembering lots of specific facts, figures and wording, such as the difference between rules and guidance, and they may make mistakes. If they do make a mistake, they must correct the record, once they are aware of the issue and have the opportunity to do so; they are asked to do so “at the earliest opportunity”.
In the report, the Privileges Committee considered whether Boris Johnson, as Prime Minister, lied to the House, which is a serious allegation. The Committee found him guilty and recommended a substantial suspension. I looked for precedents and found a helpful House of Commons Library briefing that showed there have been only 22 specific referrals to the Privileges Committee since 1979. Of those, only four—an average of one a decade—related to a specific Member or Members of Parliament. In 1994, two Members were sanctioned as part of the cash for questions inquiry, one for 10 days and the other for 20 days. In 2005, a Member was found to have been untruthful, but not to have lied, meaning presumably that it was unintentional. So this case is unusual.
Those examples took place before the Recall of MPs Act 2015. In that light, a 90-day suspension seems rather long, as others have said. It is not just a matter of the suspension itself, which has been served by Members previously; there is also the prospect of a recall. In common with other right hon. and hon. Members, I am concerned fundamentally that Members should not be removed from Parliament by other politicians, except in circumstances highlighted in the Recall Act, such as for criminal convictions resulting in imprisonment that meet the threshold of the Act or convictions for fiddling expenses.
My concern is that the process allows parliamentarians to remove other parliamentarians who have been duly elected, without clear, prior guidance on where those thresholds lie. Currently, there could be a suspension for nine or 10 days, but there is no guidance on when the suspension should last for nine days and when it should last for 10 days. That could lead to suspensions being seen to be politically motivated, as we have seen with the Committee. Whether we agree or disagree with the Committee, nobody has not noted that some people consider the report to be politically motivated. Elements of the population believe that. We need to ensure that everybody, wherever they live or work, and whatever their political allegiance, can see that the process is fair.
The other danger is that this could lead to people playing the man and not the ball; instead of trying to take down arguments made by politicians, Committees could try to take down the person. That would weaken our faith in parliamentary processes. Therefore, I hope the Leader of House will make time for a debate on when the House believes the threshold for a 10-day suspension should or should not be met. It seems to me that that is crucial. Indeed, in the report about the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), the Standards Committee, which is a Committee with a similar membership to the Privileges Committee, suggested that that matter should be given further consideration.
I think I speak for all members of the Standards Committee when I say that we are a bit exercised about how the Recall of MPs Act now functions. When deciding on a sanction, nine days looks like the possibility of recall is being deliberately avoided, but more than 10 days looks as if the Committee has decided that it is the end of somebody’s career. We want to look at the matter more fully and we intend to launch an inquiry in the autumn into that precise issue.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. If the Standards Committee undertakes that inquiry, I hope it will ask Members from across the whole House to contribute, because that is something that needs to be decided by the whole House, not just half a dozen or so members of a Committee, with due respect.
The other issue I want to raise is about Members being critical of the Committee. We are here today because there is a vote in Parliament. That means we have the opportunity to say “yes”—aye—or “no”. The fact that we can say “no” means that it is perfectly legitimate to respect the Committee and to respectfully disagree with the Committee. I have respect for my colleagues and hon. Friends who make up the Committee and who have taken on the unenviable job of making a highly politically charged decision. I am sure they have given that their full due diligence over a long period. The Committee must never be intimidated, bribed, blackmailed or bullied. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said in her opening remarks, it is a contempt of the House to seek to intimidate a member of the Committee.
However, a balance must be struck. We are here to debate and discuss, but we are free to disagree and question whether the Committee’s processes and procedures are fair. In my view, it is entirely legitimate to question whether a person who has politically opined on an issue can judge it impartially. It is reasonable to consider, do I agree with the report? Do I think the Committee has given insufficient weight to evidence provided by my hon. Friends the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Miss Dines) or for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith) in their witness statements? Do I think insufficient weight was given to Boris Johnson’s evidence, when he said, “How is it obvious that this event was a transgression if it was published in the newspapers and nobody complained?” Are we to presume, for example, that no members of the Opposition or no one among his political opponents read The Times, and that it was not obvious to them?
That said, I understand the Committee is cross that its letter was leaked in advance of the publication of the report. Having looked at what constitutes contempt of the House, I agree that leaking a report or letter is a contempt of the House. For that, the Member concerned should apologise and, if they will not, they should be sanctioned. But due process is important. If someone has done something wrong, they deserve the same due process as those who may be innocent. In my view, we should always assume someone is innocent until they are proven guilty.
Today, we are being asked to vote on a sanction based, in part, on the statement that Boris Johnson was
“complicit in the campaign of abuse and attempted intimidation of the Committee.”
That is a very serious allegation, but having read the report, I do not see where that is evidenced. That evidence has not yet been provided. If I understand the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) correctly, she said that evidence would be provided in a future report, when the Committee discusses that evidence. I am happy to take an intervention if she would like to say that it is in the report but I have missed it. I am concerned that we are being asked to vote on a sanction with essentially only half the evidence; I am not able to do that.
I rise to speak in support of the Committee’s report. I thank the Committee and its members for all the work they have done in protecting us and our privilege in the work that we do for our constituents, as the Leader of the House pointed out earlier.
Many of us, I am sure, hope that this will be the final act in one of the most disreputable episodes in British politics for many years. At that time, the country was looking to its premier elected politician—its Prime Minister—to lead us through the most difficult and traumatic of times, which I hope we never have to endure again. Lives were lost; lives were interrupted for two years; young people could not sit their exams, complete their education or start employment; people lost loved ones. The people of this country were looking to this place and the rules it was making, which were being announced from No. 10, and trusting that everything was being done in their best interests. They were following those rules and having faith in those who had set them.
I believe this is a day not for party politics, but for us all, wherever we may sit in this place, to recognise the significance of supporting the report, the moment for us and our constituents, and, as others have said, our democracy. In criticising the Committee and rejecting the validity of its conclusions, Mr Johnson attacks each of us and what we believe in. He shows contempt for the people whom we serve, and whom he purported to serve. He undermined perhaps the most intangible, and yet invaluable, foundation of our democracy: trust and confidence that our politicians, who have been voted for, tell us the truth in everything they do, and in everything they say that we, the public, must do in difficult times.
The Leader of the House talked about the real-life consequences of what we decide today and I believe that they cannot be underestimated. When we return to our constituencies from this place, our constituents will be looking to us to see how we have stood up for them, defended them and protested at the way in which they were let down by the incumbent of No. 10. They will look to us to recognise what they endured—the sacrifices that they willingly made.
Each one of us carries the title “honourable” or “right honourable”. If it is not to become a meaningless sobriquet in the 21st century, we have to live up to that today in what we decide and in what we do. The only way that we can do that is by supporting the Committee, the work that it did, the evidence that it considered and the conclusion that it came to. The honour of this House and of this democracy is at stake and we cannot risk that.
The original motion, which was discussed on the Floor of the House on 21 April 2022, in which debate both I and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant) happened to speak, should never have been allowed through by default, as I said at the time. I cannot understand how it happened and I have never had a proper explanation. What I do know, as I said earlier to the hon. Member, to others and to the Chair of the Committee, is that it uses the word “misleading” but not the words “knowingly misleading”. There is a vast difference. It is about intention. It is about whether or not Boris Johnson could have lied. That is the crucial issue.
I put down an early-day motion immediately after the Privileges Committee produced its process report, on 21 July 2022. The Committee itself drew attention, as I have, to the divergence from the established convention of deliberately or knowingly misleading the House—I made that point; I am afraid the Committee did not—as set out in the unanimously agreed 1997 resolution of the House on ministerial accountability. My motion therefore called for the 21 April motion to be rescinded. I have not changed my mind, especially as the proceedings have unfolded. My concern is also that the procedure followed has pursued a course that could even tend to undermine democratic and ministerial accountability because that is contained in, fundamentally, a unanimous resolution of 1997, which is still very much alive and kicking. Every day, the words “knowingly misleads” apply to Ministers who speak from the Dispatch Box. It was well said by the great constitutional lawyer Maitland that
“justice is to be found in the interstices of procedure.”
Thus, the procedures should reflect natural justice and the right to fairness in proceedings. I know that the Chair of the Privileges Committee has chaired the Human Rights Committee. One of the most fundamental questions in relation to the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention on human rights is fairness in proceedings and trials.
The Committee of Privileges is uniquely concerned with personal accusations and complaints, as compared with all other Select Committees, which concentrate largely on departmental policy. Natural justice therefore requires cross-examination by counsel. The rule of law requires that, where there is an accusation of misconduct or of lying, particularly by Members of the House, an individual should be entitled to have his counsel cross-examine the evidence and obtain the names of potential witnesses. Indeed, counsel can be heard in person with the leave of the House and I truly believe that the Committee of Privileges could and should have proposed that itself.
I have already dealt with the question raised earlier with respect to the admission. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Rhondda for saying in the debate on 21 April 2022 that “intention” is essential. I am glad that he reconfirmed that point today. In my view, intention cannot be excluded by any presumption of strict liability. That, as I understand it, was considered by the legal adviser to the Committee and he came to the view that strict liability applied. I do not agree, but that is a personal view and it is a view that I take as a lawyer. I do not think that strict liability is consistent with ensuring that the word “intention” is applicable in such circumstances.
I have two very quick points. The hon. Gentleman has referred to motions of the House. He will be aware that there is also a motion of the House that says that a Member will always represent themselves and not be represented by legal counsel. Therefore, if we are going to barter off motions, that is also the will of the House universally expressed. However, the bit I really cannot understand is why he goes on about this intentionality point, when page 7 of the report says that Boris Johnson was guilty of contempt by “deliberately misleading the House”. That is intentionality. They have proved it.
I will leave that for a moment. I have more to say on that very question.
Only by cross-examination of witnesses can truth be properly established. The 1997 resolution went through unanimously after a series of many Select Committee reports in the 1990s following the arms sales to Iraq saga. There were intensive cross-party discussions and, eventually, John Major and Tony Blair insisted on the words, “knowingly misleads” in the resolution that was unanimously passed; the House agreed to it. That resolution, as I have said repeatedly, prevails to this day. Therefore, no Minister shall be expected to resign, or be forced to resign, unless that can be proved.
The motion of 21 April deliberately left out the word “knowingly”. It was a Labour bear trap for Boris Johnson and the Government. Changing this fundamental principle through a new precedent would, in my view, affect all Governments and democratic accountability in future, and would, incidentally, apply to civil servants, who are also governed, under the civil service code of conduct, by the words “knowingly misleads”. They are the people who have to put together the answers to the questions that are raised on the Floor of the House and, for that matter, in speeches, too.
My hon. Friend is, indeed, a true friend and, normally, we find ourselves in the same Lobby under heavy crossfire, but I want to ask him a simple question that I would have asked my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg) had he found time to give way to me. Given that he is so hostile to the report of the Committee, will he do people like me a favour and divide the House today, so that we can have the opportunity to cast our vote, either against the report, as he wishes to do, or in favour of it, as I wish to do?
My right hon. Friend is a very good friend of mine—he really is—as indeed of some Members on the other side of the House. I would simply like to say this. I am not in control of whether there is going to be an amendment. [Interruption.] No, I am making the point that, as far as I am concerned, there is an issue here that is being debated. Many people are absenting themselves for what they believe to be very good reasons. I am simply taking the view that somebody may decide that they are going to divide the House and I am leaving that as an open question for the time being. However, the statements made by Boris Johnson on the Floor of the House—
Not just now, thank you. I want to get on to this other point.
The statements made by Boris Johnson on the Floor of the House were in fact about legal interpretation of the covid rules and the guidance in respect of No.10. The Justice Committee conducted an excellent inquiry, reporting in September 2021, on the meaning and effect of the covid rules and guidance, several months before partygate emerged as an issue. That report is of great importance because it endorsed the incisive legal analysis of the former counsel for domestic legislation, the present Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. He highlighted the legal uncertainty of the regulations and guidance, stating in evidence to the Committee that
“there has been a lack of clarity as to what regulations applied to specific situations at what times…The combination of regulations and guidance, and the lack of clarity as to where one starts and the other stops, have been recurring themes of the coronavirus regulations.”
I strongly recommend that Opposition Members listen to that. It is very important in deciding whether a person can lie in those circumstances, because the same applied to subsequent regulations. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards emphasised that that lack of clarity undermined the rule of law. That could not have been more apparent than in the differences in approach between that of the Durham police authority on the Barnard Castle incident and that taken in relation to the Leader of the Opposition and beer drinking at a particular event, which led to no action and, on the other hand, the Metropolitan police in relation to No. 10, which did lead to action. The essential point about all of this is that no one, not even the lawyers, knew what the law was. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards made that crystal clear. Even the civil servants who drafted the regulations were fined for non-compliance.
I now come to the fundamental issue of whether Boris Johnson can be accused of knowingly lying to the House. It is clear from what I have said that the accusation that the former Prime Minister had deliberately or knowingly misled that House, as set out in the current and existing 1997 resolution, put together by Tony Blair and John Major and endorsed unanimously by the House as a whole, can only be derived from a proper legal interpretation of the words on which Boris Johnson was relying and of the legal advice he had received inside No. 10 on each occasion on which he is accused. I find no publication of that legal advice in this report. Boris Johnson therefore, in my view, cannot have been found guilty of knowingly misleading Parliament if no lawyers, let alone the Prime Minister, who is not a lawyer, could get the legal position right. The regulations and the guidance entirely lacked legal certainty. Therefore the Prime Minister could not have knowingly misled the House.
Why, as I believe to be the case, did the Committee not obtain evidence from those lawyers in No. 10 who provided legal advice when it was so crucial? If it did, why has that evidence apparently not been published? Boris Johnson cannot therefore have knowingly misled the House, and that should have been the end of it. I do not see how contempt can be attributed in these circumstances, for he simply could not have knowingly misled Parliament on any rational interpretation of the word “knowingly”, which the original motion left out.
Those who argue that now the report has been published it is all over and done, and those who say that the dogs bark but the caravan moves on, miss the wood for the trees. The caravan of this House, having moved on, will certainly come back. Then the dogs will not merely bark, but they will bite, and Parliament will be the victim, and it is likely that any future Labour Government will get caught up in it—although heaven forbid one should ever be elected. I therefore do not approve of this motion.
It is clearly a very serious matter when one of our number is found in contempt of the House, and no one can or should take any pleasure in the report that we are debating this evening. However, in light of what has just been argued by the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), it is important that we remember that the revelations about the parties at 10 Downing Street, and they were parties, caused many people a great deal of anger and distress. They saw what went on there and contrasted it with what they had done in faithfully upholding the rules and guidance as they understood them, at great personal cost—above all, when they were not able to be present as their loved ones breathed their last—and they have the right to be angry about what happened.
That is why we asked the Privileges Committee to look into what happened and what we had repeatedly, if I may use the word, been told by the Prime Minister. Having looked at the evidence, our colleagues—we are talking about our colleagues here, on both sides of the House—formed their judgment, and I think we have a duty to accept their report and what they have found. That point was made forcefully in a number of speeches, not least by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May).
Why should we do that? First, because we traditionally accept reports of the Privileges Committee, because it did give Mr Johnson every opportunity to explain what he said and why he said it, because it was a cross-party group of MPs, as the Privileges Committee always is, and because its conclusions were unanimous. That is why to suggest there was some sort of conspiracy—I am sorry that one or two Members have veered in that direction in this debate—by one party or certain people to do down the Prime Minister is frankly implausible and insulting to this House.
What is more, I agree with the Committee that Mr Johnson’s behaviour following the receipt of the draft report and since it was published, and the public attacks he has made on the integrity of the members of the Committee, their report and its findings, have been, to put it mildly, distasteful and certainly egregious. They have only compounded the contempt he has committed against this House.
To address the argument that has been put about whether people can criticise the report, it is one thing to argue one’s case, to be found against and then to disagree with the findings. Everyone is entitled to do that, and to cast their vote accordingly this evening. It is completely another to call the whole process and those involved in it into question, to accuse them and the report of being “nonsense”, “beneath contempt”, “rubbish” and “deranged”—those are the words that have been used—especially when it is a blatant attempt to undermine the very democratic system we are sent here to uphold. As has already been said, when the Committee is attacked for doing its job by a Member, now a former Member, it is us as MPs who are also being attacked.
The other thing that worries me about this situation, and I think it should worry all of us, is that the type of conduct we have seen from Mr Johnson is all too reminiscent of what is going on as we speak on the other side of the Atlantic ocean. People look at what he has said and done here and what Mr Trump is doing over there, and they see the similarities. Here are two people who are trying to trash our institutions and our democracy in the process. That is very different from expressing disagreement with the judgment of the Privileges Committee.
Why does this matter? The word has already been used many times in this debate, but it is about trust. I think the Committee summed it up perfectly when it said:
“The House proceeds on the basis that what it is told by Ministers is accurate and truthful…Our democracy depends on MPs’ being able to trust that what Ministers tell them in the House of Commons is the truth. If Ministers cannot be trusted to tell the truth, the House cannot do its job and the confidence of the public in our democracy is undermined.”
Let us be honest with ourselves: there is no doubt that the public’s confidence in our democracy, and in us as politicians, has been damaged by what has gone on. Therefore, this is our chance to show that we too think that telling the truth to the House of Commons matters and that we as a House are collectively determined to uphold that fundamental principle, however high and mighty a Member may have been. To agree this report today will not be proof of the shortcomings of the process or of our democracy or the way in which we work; on the contrary, it will be to uphold its integrity and its strength.
In 2019, Boris Johnson won a majority that no one expected. What was most important about that majority was that it broke the shackles of socialism in the north for the first time. Whether it had been me or another Conservative, the fact that Doncaster got a new voice—someone to call out the neglect that had been allowed to take hold in my town—should never be forgotten. We should be eternally grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that.
We all know why we are here today, but we should remember that the right hon. Gentleman broke the deadlock of Brexit, started to undo the decades of north-south divide and started to put right the consequences of austerity—coalition austerity, yes, but it was caused by the inept economic policies of the Labour party. He vaccinated the country faster than any other, saved thousands of households and businesses from certain bankruptcy, and was the first to offer support when Russia invaded Ukraine. We must remember that he is a human, too. In addition to running the country, he dealt with the highs and lows that this life brings. During covid, he nearly died. He got married, lost his mum, and had a child.
No, I will not.
All that happened under the media spotlight, with a three-day camping trip for a break.
The report says that the right hon. Gentleman “misled the House”. The question is this: is the Committee right that he did so deliberately and is the punishment fair? That is where I struggle.
There are some good people on that Committee—my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) is someone I am pleased to call a friend—but I have to say that I think these Committees are set up to fail before they start. Why? Let me use a football analogy. If Man City’s star player had to sit in front of seven of his peers for a hearing, how fair would it be if three of the committee were Man United players? Not very. No matter how honourable they were, the opportunity to take out the opposition’s star player would be too much. If we are going to use MPs as Committee members, which I think we should—who else knows what this job is like—they must be of the same party. We must select Labour Committee members for hearings of Labour MPs, and Conservative committee members for hearings of Conservative MPs. Many may say, “But they will always find them not guilty,” but that is not what happened here, and lay members could still sit on the Committee.
Now, I want to speak to our constituents—the ones who did not break the rules; I know some did, but two wrongs do not make a right. We in this place set those rules, so we should always try our best to lead by example, and I want the public to know that most of us did. The right hon. Gentleman paid a fine that I would have challenged. A piece of cake in the Cabinet Office is hardly a party. And let us remind ourselves that it was the only fixed penalty that he received after a previous inquiry.
No, I did not know that. It is good that it is now on record and that the House does.
The report looked at six events and the photos that had been produced and concluded that they were in breach, but not at the events in the most recent videos. Parties happened, and stronger leadership may have prevented them, but the right hon. Gentleman was not at those parties. I saw this weekend the video of others partying. He was not there, but I can see the hurt that it has caused, and I know that people feel wronged and want justice. I know that people lost loved ones; I did, too. But the storing up of hate for those people will not bring our loved ones back, so I ask this for their sake: somehow, we need to find it in our hearts to move on.
The right hon. Gentleman has lost the top job. He has now resigned his post as a Member of Parliament. Trust me, he has paid the price. As for the young people in that video, they should have known better and do not deserve to be honoured, but I cannot ask the public to forgive and not do so myself, so I do. But I ask them to learn from these errors, or life will be tough for them and everyone around them. The video was posted by the media—a media whose only intention is to sell papers. Do not be tricked, anybody: the media are bastions of free press, but not always for the right reasons, so I say to the press: “Do the job, by all means, but think of the implications.” I ask them to use their power wisely.
I come now to the motion. If I vote for the report, my haters will love me for five minutes and then hate me again. If I vote against it, the ones who have lost loves ones will think that I do not care, and I desperately do. If I abstain, I please no one. But I am not here to please; I am here to do what I think is right. I will therefore vote against the report because I think the process is flawed. I will vote against because pleasing the Opposition will not bring back my constituents’ loved ones. I will vote against because the right hon. Gentleman has already left, so, in some cases, the vote is already futile. I will vote against because he has been punished enough. I will vote against because if I ask people to forgive, then so must I. I will vote against because this country has had enough, and so have I.
I finish by asking the right hon. Gentleman whether, if he cares about our country and his party as much as I think he does, he will back our Prime Minister and our party, and help to get this country back on track. This country and its people have suffered enough through covid, and it is time to move on. A decade of Labour will be terrible.
In my 26 or so years in the House, I have never read a report from the Privileges Committee that has been so damning and excoriating. Nor have I read one that has been so carefully prepared over such a long time by Members from across the House who have clearly taken the obligations placed on them by the House with great seriousness in difficult circumstances.
We in this House all owe the right hon. and hon. Members on the Privileges Committee, who conducted the work to produce the report that we are considering, an extensive debt of gratitude—I am not the only person to say so, but I think it bears repetition. It matters to us all, no matter which party we are in; whether we are Back Benchers, Ministers or hope to be Ministers; whether we were Ministers for a few weeks and perhaps hope to be again; or whether we intend to remain Back Benchers, intend to stand down, or end up getting defeated at a future general election. It matters to everybody in this House that the privileges of this House are properly upheld. If they are not, our representative democracy cannot properly function, as the beginning of the report’s conclusion makes perfectly clear. I agree very much that this matters.
Those who take the view that we are now considering a trivial punishment given that Mr Johnson has left could not be more wrong. It is important that the House, which established and asked the Committee to do the report, considers the findings and votes as it wishes to. I hope that every Member votes in favour of the Committee’s findings and recommendations.
There have been ample opportunities for those who object fundamentally to the way in which the report has been produced to have an influence on it. The motion was amendable, but it has not been amended. As other right hon. and hon. Members have said, there have been opportunities throughout the process, which has taken over a year, to have an impact on the Committee’s membership, on the terms of reference, and on the work that it has been asked to do.
The Committee has done what we asked it to do, and its findings are quite shocking. The report sets out egregious behaviour by the former Prime Minister, amounting to multiple contempts of Parliament. We must draw a line in the sand to stop Ministers thinking that they can lie to Parliament. Whether they are the most junior Under-Secretary or the Prime Minister, they cannot go to the Dispatch Box and deliberately lie. If they do, they must be punished for it by this House. If they do it and get away with it, as is the way with liars, they think they can do it again.
Mr Johnson appeared to think that one should lie repeatedly and lie big, but if we do what I believe we should tonight and support the report of the Privileges Committee, he will have been stopped in his tracks and dealt with for the lying that he did at that Dispatch Box. That can only be good for our democracy. That is why every Member of this House who is present should vote in favour of the report.
I commend those Conservative Members—particularly those in the Government—who are here and have made it clear that they will support the report. I had rather hoped to see the Prime Minister and far more of the Cabinet here, because it should matter to them as much as it matters to Opposition Members. Some day in the future, when they are in opposition—I think that will happen—they will want to know, just as much as any other Member of the House, that they are being told the truth from that Dispatch Box. It is a shame that the Prime Minister does not seem to be here. It does not send the right signal—it does not show that the House takes the matter seriously enough—if some parts of it decide on a party political basis that for party management reasons it is easier to run away and hide. That is a shame.
The debates we have been having about “knowingly” are legally esoteric, but the Committee found that Mr Johnson had deliberately misled the House—that takes knowledge aforethought; to be deliberately doing something, one has to be aware that one is doing it—that he deliberately misled the Committee; that he breached the confidence of the Committee when he did not like the findings that he was shown in the report, which he got to see before the Committee had finalised it and before it was published; that he impugned the Committee, thereby undermining the democratic process of the House; and that he was complicit in the campaign of abuse and attempted intimidation of the Committee.
This has gone on over an extended period. The Committee found that there were five times when Mr Johnson misled the House: first,
“when he said that Guidance was followed completely in No. 10, that the Rules and Guidance were followed at all times, that events in No. 10 were within the Rules and Guidance, and that the Rules and Guidance had been followed at all times when he was present”;
“he failed to tell the House about his own knowledge of the gatherings where rules or guidance had been broken,”
even though he was there and he could have said what he saw; and, thirdly, when
“he said that he relied on repeated assurances that the rules had not been broken.”
The Committee stated:
“The assurances he received were not accurately represented by him to the House”.
The final two times were when Mr Johnson
“gave the impression that there needed to be an investigation by Sue Gray before he could answer questions when he had personal knowledge that he did not reveal,”
“when he purported to correct the record but instead continued to mislead the House and, by his continuing denials,”
It is pretty clear, and the evidence can all be read. The Committee stated that Mr Johnson was being
“deliberately disingenuous when he tried to reinterpret his statements to the House to avoid their plain meaning and reframe the clear impression that he intended to give, namely when he advanced unsustainable interpretations of the Rules and Guidance to advance the argument that the lack of social distancing at gatherings was permissible within the exceptions…and when he advanced legally impermissible reasons to justify the gatherings.”
It is pretty clear from the report that this was not an inadvertent or occasional slight slip, but a pattern of behaviour.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
I heard several of the speeches prior to the right hon. Lady’s, but I am grateful to her for giving way none the less.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) made the point about the difference between being deliberate and being knowing, but I will not dwell on that. Will the right hon. Lady comment on the sanction? It seems to me that she is right that the privileges of this House matter, and that the way the privileges are managed matters too, but one might have expected the Privileges Committee to have some kind of sentencing guidelines, if I can put it in those terms. One might have expected the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who chaired the Committee, given that she has been here since I was in full-time education, to have insisted on that at the beginning.
It is entirely a matter for the Committee what sanction it proposes. It seems pretty clear from what it has said that the proposed sanction was increased following the further contempt that occurred when the draft report was sent to Mr Johnson, because of the way he behaved in leaking the report. I am not on the Committee, so I do not know what proposals were being considered before that further contempt, but I do not think 90 days is unreasonable, given the extensive period of time, the number of contempts, and the way he behaved having been confronted with his behaviour.
By the way, I think that the sanction concerning the former Member’s pass is important too. People might think it trivial, but it sends a signal of extreme disapproval and indicates that, if a former Member decides to behave in this manner, that will not be allowed with impunity. I think that is entirely reasonable.
I do not wish to go through any more of the details. This is an egregious example—one of the worst I have seen. The Committee members have done the House a service. The truth starts here, at that Dispatch Box. It must be observed. If we do not have that, we do not have a functioning parliamentary democracy. That is why every Member of this House must, in my view, vote this evening to support the Committee and to approve its report.
Let me start by putting on the record my thanks to the Privileges Committee for its diligent work over many months, and to the Clerks to the Committee for supporting that work.
Today’s debate is focused on the Committee’s work and report on the misleading of this House, and whether that constituted a contempt of the House—not on wrongdoing, but on what was said at the Dispatch Box in response to allegations of wrongdoing.
No one is perfect—let he who is without sin cast the first stone—but it is how we respond to the errors we make that defines us. I agree with the Father of the House, who is no longer in his place: if one makes a mistake, one apologises at the earliest opportunity, not many, many months later.
I draw the attention of those outside the Chamber who may be watching the debate to annex 1 of the report, on process and procedure. In brief, the House referred the matter to the Committee without a Division, its members were agreed to without a Division, and it had no power to sanction; it could only make a recommendation to decide on, which is why we are here today to debate and decide.
I deplore the attacks on members of the Privileges Committee, whether they come from external commentators or from within this House. The work of the Committee is thankless; there is no need to make it potentially dangerous, too. The additional security that was needed is deeply shameful.
The right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) is an exceptional parliamentarian and it was a privilege to serve with her on the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I also deplore the attacks on my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), who is a voluntary magistrate as well as serving his constituents in this place. Shame, shame, shame on those who are working to undermine him and his future prospects. He is a decent and honourable Member, as are all members of the Privileges Committee.
As this is a House matter, it is up to each Member to decide individually how to vote and to explain their decision to their constituents. I will not try to persuade or urge Members to do other than their conscience dictates. No one should be whipped on a House matter. I will be voting to support the Committee’s findings.
We have been reminded in this debate that the report makes the fundamental point that:
“Our democracy depends on MPs being able to trust that what Ministers tell them in the House of Commons is the truth.”
On 24 November 2021, at Prime Minister’s questions, the then Prime Minister said that
“now, almost a month after furlough ended, there are more people in work than there were before the pandemic began.”—[Official Report, 24 November 2021; Vol. 704, c. 344.]
That statement was untrue. The monthly employment statistics at that time showed that there were over half a million fewer people in employment than there were before the pandemic began, and total employment remained lower than before the pandemic until this month’s employment statistics.
The former Prime Minister made the same untrue claim on 15 December 2021, then again on 5 January 2022 —when he said it three times—and then on 12 January and 19 January 2022. On 1 February 2022, the director general for regulation at the Office for Statistics Regulation wrote to the director of data science at 10 Downing Street to point out that that repeated claim was untrue. The Prime Minister repeated the claim again on 2 February, and again on 23 February 2022. I thought at first that the Prime Minister might have just misunderstood the numbers. It was true, as he claimed on a number of occasions, that the number of people on payrolls was higher than before the pandemic, but that was because a lot of self-employed people gave up self-employment during the pandemic or afterwards and became employees on payrolls instead.
The letter from the director general having had no impact, the then chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, wrote to the Prime Minister on 24 February 2022:
“Dear Prime Minister…it is wrong to claim that there are now more people in work than before the pandemic began: the increase in the number of people who are on payrolls is more than offset by the reduction in the number of people who are self-employed.”
At the Liaison Committee in March 2022, I asked the then Prime Minister whether he accepted that correction in Sir David Norgrove’s letter. His reply was not straightforward, but the transcript of the meeting shows that Mr Johnson understood fully and clearly what had happened in the labour market—he did not misunderstand the figures—and he also accepted that employment was in fact lower than before the pandemic. He said that he was going to correct the record on that point, which he did not do, but he did recognise that his claim had been mistaken.
Despite that, Mr Johnson subsequently carried on making the claim. He said it again the next month, on 20 April and on 27 April. In his final Question Time as Prime Minister on 20 July last year, he said, despite knowing well that it was untrue,
“We have more people in paid employment than at any time in the history of this country.”—[Official Report, 20 July 2022; Vol. 718, c. 951.]
My conclusion from all of this, which I think sheds some light on the events covered by the report, is that Mr Johnson just is not interested in whether a statement is true or not. He is a clever man—he thinks quite hard about what he plans to say—but the criterion, “Is this true?” is not an important consideration for him.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a good speech. Boris had a complicated relationship with the truth—I am not denying that. The right hon. Gentleman has been in this House for a very long time, and it is great that he is saying that truth and integrity are very important. New Labour had a reputation for injecting lies into the British political process as never before. [Interruption.] It is true, actually. Did he specifically object to the lies that were told in the run-up to the Gulf war? He was in Parliament then.
I was in Parliament, and I do not believe that Ministers at that time said things that they knew to be untrue. I think it is absolutely clear, as far as I can tell—I am just spelling out the facts—that the former Prime Minister did say in this House things that he knew well to be untrue, because I had the chance to discuss them with him at the Liaison Committee and he agreed they were untrue, but he carried on saying them.
Yes, I do believe that those who made those points in the House at the time believed that they were true. It subsequently became clear that they were not. I defy anyone to claim the same about Boris Johnson, given the particular history that I have recounted. As we have been reminded in this debate, that approach to politics is toxic for democracy. What is the point of us standing up and asking Ministers questions day after day if they routinely give us answers they know to be untrue? We have no chance of building confidence in Parliament, in democracy and in politics if Ministers do not care whether what they say is true or not.
Maybe there is a contrary argument that great men should not have to worry about such trivial details, but the Committee is absolutely right: if that view prevailed, our democracy would be at very serious risk, as I think it is across the Atlantic at the moment. With Boris Johnson having made a pretty successful career out of not telling the truth, thank goodness that the Committee was willing to take a stand. It is absolutely right, and I hope the whole House will support the Committee this evening.
First, I accept the Privileges Committee report, and I thank the Chair of that Committee and everyone who worked on it. Trust and integrity are important in politics. People think that politicians sometimes lack that, and when there is a chance to show that we are doing the right thing, it is important that that happens. As such, I will vote for the report and I accept the substance of it, while respecting some of the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg) and my hon. Friends the Members for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) and for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici). Although I think they have a case, I am afraid that it does not quite convince me.
More broadly, I am so over Boris, and I am pretty over lockdown as well. The point I want to make tonight is that we are sometimes in danger of making Westminster look small and petty. Do not get me wrong: truth, and politicians at the Dispatch Box telling the truth, is a fundamental building block—a keystone—of this place. However, I can tell the House that, going by my inbox, for every person in this Chamber or every person watching who says, “Fantastic, you’re getting Boris,” or, “The Privileges Committee is doing its job,” there are other people saying, “Yet again, you are talking about yourselves. Yet again, it is politicians talking about process.” There were other big scandals to do with lockdown that arguably had more impact on our nation. That is not to deny the importance of Boris’s casual attitude to the truth. He saw lockdowns as being difficult to obey and, frankly, he was right. At that point, a wiser leader would probably have questioned his own rules, not sought to get around them—after all, they were his rules, and while one can love Boris, I think it is true to say that remorse is probably not one of his fine qualities.
For me, the scandal of lockdown and how we dealt with covid is not only whether there were wine Fridays and cake in Downing Street, and people carrying about pints of milk in protest; it is whether lockdown worked and the cost of lockdown in terms of lives, learning, sanity, money and truth. Since lockdown, we have had extraordinarily little conversation about those critical issues, but give people a chance to give Boris a kicking and we are queuing up to do so. I am just going to mention some of the other things that I think are important.
Before my hon. Friend moves on to those other things, I want to reinforce the point he has made about calumnies in this House. By far the greatest deception I have seen in this House was when Tony Blair, the then Prime Minister, came before us and said that he had secret information that our country was at risk from weapons of mass destruction. Whether he was knowing or whether he was simply careless, the consequences were bloody, and we are now introspectively discussing cake and sandwiches. That is how the public see it, and my hon. Friend is right about them regarding us as both introspective and self-indulgent.
For me, if it is cake versus the lives of 179 soldiers, it is pretty easy to say which I think is more important, but that does not excuse misleading the House.
I will briefly run through the other scandals, which are really important. We are now paying in excess deaths, as our constituents die of the cancers and heart diseases that went undetected when we in effect shut down the NHS for covid, exactly as doctors, experts, scientists and professors such as Karol Sikora warned. They paid a high price for it in the attacks on their integrity or on why the media should be carrying their comments. Given these excess deaths, it is not impossible that lockdown may end up killing more people, and certainly taking more life years, than it saved. One report recently—it is only one report, but there is a plethora of peer-reviewed reports, and one does try to follow some of them—suggested that lockdown may have saved 1,700 lives. That is the equivalent of the UK’s natural deaths in about 26 and a half hours. That was at the cost of shutting down our schools, the £400 billion and so on.
To come on to the next scandal, our schools were shut. That is a disaster that has stalled educational improvement, and 100,000 kids—ghost kids—have disappeared off the rolls. What has happened to those kids—drifting into abuse, mental health crises, drugs, crime, solitude and loneliness? We do not know. It is one of the great scandals of the day. [Interruption.] The shadow Leader of the House is shaking her head, and saying, “What’s that got to do with this?” The point I am trying to make, and I will take an intervention if she wants, is that there are important scandals to do with lockdown. I do not defend Boris—
I thank the hon. Gentleman for inviting me to intervene. I just want to clarify that this debate is about the Privileges Committee report into whether or not Boris Johnson knowingly misled the House. It is not about whether the lockdown rules were good or bad. That may be a debate worthy of parliamentary time, but it is not this debate.
It is a debate worthy of parliamentary time, but when I held a debate on the use of Imperial modelling, not a single Labour Member turned up apart from the shadow Minister. The point I am trying to make is that there were scandals and other important things about lockdown. One of the things we are criticised for, as the shadow Leader of the House will know, is having an obsession with ourselves when there are other great and important things to be discussed about covid and lockdown, not only whether Downing Street had—
Mr Deputy Speaker, I will wind up if you think I am speaking out of turn or too widely. However, I was going to say that our mental health crisis is a scandal worth reporting. The fact is that this cost £400 billion, and the fact is that science was misused and trust abused. Lockdown was an experiment, and I do sometimes think that focusing the lockdown debate on the behaviour of the then Prime Minister is too narrow and does not do this House a service.
I will vote to support the Privileges Committee report, but I do wish that the same level of interest, especially from the Opposition, would sometimes focus on the stuff that actually made a difference in lockdown, not just on vindictively going after Boris Johnson.
All that glitters is not gold. The Overton window is framed by a vignette of deceit, and right hon. and hon. Members seem intent on paying homage to it above all else. Some will say and some have said that Boris Johnson misled the Committee and misled Parliament, and others that the Committee set out to achieve its predetermined goal of finding him guilty on all charges. Many of the public hold both views at once, and they are not mutually exclusive, so this pantomime staggers on.
The reality is that Parliament and the public are about as far out of lockstep with each other as they have ever been. I am not sure that the public in the real world care too much about this any more. I think very few people out there in the real world trust Boris Johnson. Sadly, through the process we have seen and the collateral damage to the reputation of this House, I think the Privileges Committee itself has been damaged and may be damaged further by revelations.
The public concern is very much to say, “a plague on all your houses”. What has caused this loss of public confidence in the procedures of the House? Well, the evidence is damning: Boris Johnson and his Government used behavioural scientists and spin doctors to clinically instil unreasonable fear to scare the public into ceasing their normal lives under the guise of a biological threat so deadly that they dared not go outside to see another person.
We all remember the relentless, day in, day out, informing of the public by Ministers in No. 10 about death rates and horror stories. We remember the signs everywhere we looked, we remember the adverts on the television and we remember the supermarket car parks filled with masked citizens each forced to stand in their own car parking bay. The relentless messaging from No. 10 was, “Stand on the stickers, follow the signposts, wash your hands, don’t see your loved ones”. The Government decided it was their job to be that of a parent and they saw the country as a toddlers playgroup, turning our police into teaching assistants, au pairs and, dare I say it, nannies. On every single account, they robbed the public of their dignity. It was nothing short of unacceptable. Our ancestors would be rightly ashamed of the situation.
During that period, the public yet again showed that their natural inclination, as fellow Brits, was to good-natured compliance and community spirit. We saw some of the largest demonstrations of kindness I have ever seen and those demonstrations, under immense pressure, showed the real spirit of the British people. Their altruism held up a mirror to the true nature of the appalling behaviour at No. 10. Any contention the public had that, in No. 10, “They have the latest, most accurate scientific data in front of them, and therefore these measures were justified in the face of the extreme risk” now has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the truth. The fact is that the same people who took the unprecedented powers to suspend our freedoms knew that these measures were nothing short of political posturing. They knew they were pointless. If the risks were really what they said they were and the science of the effectiveness of the lockdowns was that demonstrable, surely they would have been the most strident adherers to the rules—
Look, while it is very exciting to see what is going on and to remove a Prime Minister with an 80-seat majority, can we not just think about what happened here or did not happen here? What did the police and Sue Gray actually come up with? The guy was delivered a piece of cake. I would have been the first person, if Boris had had parties in the flat or whatever else, to stand up here and whinge about it, but the reality is that what we know is that he accepted a piece of cake. So can people not accept that, just possibly, the guy stood there and really did not believe he was misleading the House?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and I think his misplaced loyalty to Boris Johnson is laudable. However, the behaviour in Downing Street bore a closer resemblance to the set of “Love Island” than to a collection of our country’s top minds and high performers working tirelessly to steer us through dangerous waters. This was at the same time as they went further than any other British Government have gone before them to take more and more powers under the wing of the state.
The question is: are internal parliamentary Committees and state inquiries agenda-driven? Well, who can fault the public for thinking that they probably are, because when we look at the covid inquiry that has now started, it is requiring all participants to take lateral flow tests in 2023. Yes, the bubble surrounding the Westminster political elite has become absolutely opaque. The public cannot understand it and it cannot understand the public. I am afraid that the bubble has well and truly burst. The consensus still about the lockdowns is that they were sensible, practical and acceptable for the public. The only discussion ever allowed in this place was how long the lockdowns should be. But lockdowns and restrictions were not for anybody at No. 10; they were only for the little people.
If the data had really indicated that the virus was
“the most vicious threat this country has faced in my lifetime”—
they are the words of the former Prime Minister himself—then why were those who were seeing the data at first hand and were privy to all the later briefings continually breaching their own rules? While they locked us in our houses, they went to parties. When they forced us to wear masks, they broke out the party hats. They closed our schools and they opened the bottles. Well, I’m glad they had such a good time.
I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman.
The rest of our experiences and the collective memories of lockdown were not that great, to be honest. It was isolation, destroyed livelihoods, missed goodbyes to loved ones, and a new relationship with our state that bore an uncomfortable resemblance to history lessons and modern China—something that none of us ever dreamed would be true in present-day Britain.
We are all human, with all our human failings. Our health is incredibly important to us all, and we all welcome modern advances in medicine that over the centuries have reduced the nastier realities of life. But we never wanted this. What has happened at the top of our Government? The makers of the covid regulations deemed that their work meetings were more important than our children’s education. It is almost as if they wanted to make incompetence endemic. We can never give the children back the years of schooling that they lost, and we can never give the public back the time that we robbed from them. But we can give them answers and legislative assurances that we will never, ever replay that fiasco. Finally, let us sign the whole thing off as a job badly done, a chapter to consign to history and a stark lesson in how not to govern. The people of North West Leicestershire feel betrayed and they have been betrayed. It must never, ever happen again.
A gentle reminder: we are talking about the report and its findings. If Members have speeches that they wrote two or three days ago and it contains things that are not relevant to the report, please could they lose those pages and concentrate on this debate? Jess Phillips is going to show us how to do it.
I will very much focus on the report. To comment on the last two speakers, not necessarily the wildly tangential line that they went down, but the idea that everybody is a bit sick of this and they do not want to be talking about it, quite a lot of people have been in touch with me while the debate has been going on and they are watching the debate. One of the people who got in touch with me is a brilliant woman called Mina Smallman, whose daughters, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, were killed during the period when our country was in lockdown, in a double murder. She said to me:
“Please mention our story and Bibaa and Nicole. Had they broken the rules they would still be alive.”
They went to a picnic in a park, and they staggered it so that there would not be too many people, because they understood the regulations. Because of that, they were murdered. Mina Smallman also said that Sarah Everard was so frightened of the covid regulations that she ended up dead. So there were people in our country who listened to Boris Johnson talking on television, they took away from him what the rules were, as the primary message giver in the pandemic, they understood the rules, and it cost them their lives in a completely different way from that which has been discussed so far.
The idea that Boris Johnson did not understand the regulations—it is a cracking defence on his part because it basically means that he is too stupid. He’s either lying or he’s thick. Somebody said earlier they were not mutually exclusive. I think that is the case in this instance. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.
I did not come to this place as a big cheerleader of it. I felt that I was going to think that parliamentary procedure was silly in a lot of regards, and all the Northstead bailiffing has not disavowed me of that in the last couple of weeks. What I found, however, was that I became a total cheerleader for parliamentary democracy. I had not expected to. It has really been quite a shock to me that I became such a cheerleader of parliamentary democracy, but it is because it matters. People in our country putting trust in us to do the right thing really matters. Since I have been here, I have seen the fragility of that, with lies, misdirection and constantly feeling like you are never getting an answer.
Our constituents say over and over again, “Oh my God, just answer the question.” That is the most pressing thing for most people in our country: “Oh my God, just get someone to answer the bloody question”—excuse my language, I am quoting the public. They said it worse; it could have been much worse. So it really matters that the institution of this place be protected, and that it is considered to be truthful and honest.
The only people who are served by the public hating politicians and the institution of Parliament are the people who already hold power. It is so important for the people to feel empowered in the thing that represents them and is there to drive them. If they opt out and say, “You’re all the same: you’re all liars and cheats”, the same people who have always ruled always will rule. They do not mind that people say that.
This is about the importance of telling the truth in this place, and respecting the systems that we all have to live by and that we all vote through; like this Committee, we all voted for that and passed it through this building. It matters so much. That is why I stand here to say that I have watched that degrade and, for the first time, with this Privileges Committee report, I have felt like it has a chance to come back. I have felt that there is a lock on the system and a valve to release the pressure. I have seen for the past five years people—specifically Boris Johnson—lying and deceiving. I have felt, “Oh gosh, it’s okay. The system is bigger than this demagogue. It is bigger than that man who thinks he is bigger and more important than the world.” The system fought back with honour and I thank the members of the Committee for their hard work.
Boris Johnson’s demagoguery in receipt of the report should surprise absolutely no one. It is to be laughed at, frankly, and the public are laughing at it. It looks really desperate. Some of the defences that I have heard today on behalf of Members trying to stick up for Boris Johnson look a little like people dancing on the head of a pin. Frankly, they were laughable and people are watching. I feel very bad that that will be represented as if it is the Conservative party’s view, when there are very decent Members who absolutely will do the right thing and stick up for democracy.
It is a crying shame that, in this moment of release valve, the Prime Minister of our country cannot even express how he would vote if he were to turn up today. In my view, that is a dereliction of duty. Democracy has been degraded. It is important to fight for it. I cannot believe that he could not take five seconds out of parroting his pledges to tell us what he thinks should happen. I praise the Leader of the House today for showing leadership in that regard. I cannot believe that the Prime Minister cannot even express what his view is one way or another.
There are many things that are matters of conscience in this place. When I look back on the record and see the Prime Minister of the day has not expressed a view on them, I think it is weak—it is quite a lot of unparliamentary words that I am probably not allowed to say, so I will not say them. I can now say that Boris Johnson is a liar and I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), who will be speaking after me, has been completely vindicated by the fact that we can all say that Boris Johnson is a liar. I just wish there had been a united front today. I understand that it is a matter of conscience, and there will always be some people who feel a different way, and I totally respect that. It is a real shame if the House cannot express today how important democracy is to us because of the failure of one leader leading to the weakness of the next.
We all owe a debt of gratitude to the Privileges Committee and its Chair, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who has had to sit through some of the strangest speeches I have heard in this House. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for mentioning Mina Smallman, who is an amazing woman who continues to fight to keep the memory of her daughters alive and to change the system, whether that be the police or other systems.
This debate is all about democracy. The trust that should exist between the Government and those who are governed has been badly damaged. The question to every single Member of this House must be: how do we repair that damage? The way we do that is by demanding transparency, honesty and integrity from those who hold positions of power and those who stand at the Dispatch Box. The Leader of the House gave an impassioned speech saying just that. We must not tolerate the casual disregard for truth that has become the hallmark of this Government. It should shame us all.
We are honourable Members of Parliament. It is not just a title, but something we should hold dear. We should be honourable in what we do in this place. We should be honourable to the people we serve, because they have elected us. Democracy demands honourable conduct, and we have not seen much of that over the past few years. If we allow lies to go unchecked and deceit to become the norm, our democracy begins to crumble, and that is what has been happening. We sit here time and time again and see Ministers coming to the Dispatch Box. We all stand up and say, “That is not true, that is not true”, and we are told that we are not allowed to say that. We have to say, “They have inadvertently misled the House and they will have to come back to the House to correct the record”, but they never come back. They tell a lie, they sit down with a goofy grin on their face, they walk out and they never come back to correct the record, and that is a problem for our democracy.
This House must be able to speak truth to power. Honourable Members of this House must be able to stand up and say, “That is incorrect”, otherwise what is the point or the purpose? We must also not be so obsessed with the archaic rules of this House. We must be honest with ourselves and say, “We have got to challenge the rules of this House if they are not working.” We have to challenge the system of this House if it is not working. It is a nonsense that in this House we cannot call somebody a liar if they are lying. People say, “It will degrade the House and everyone will be calling each other a liar.” If people do not want to be called a liar, do not lie—tell the truth. That is the solution to the problem. The truth must prevail and integrity must be restored. All Members of this House are guardians of our democracy, and I am sorry, but we are not doing a good job; we must do much better, and this report does bring some of that back to us.
It is ironic that two years ago I was thrown out of Parliament for calling Johnson a liar, when if he was not such a weasel and had not resigned, he would have been thrown out of this place for 90 days for lying. Okay, yeah, it would have made me a little bit happy to see him thrown out of the House, but ultimately, it is not about that; it is about our system in this place, and we have to do better. It was not easy breaking the conventions of the House. I got a lot of abuse from some Members on the Government Benches, saying, “How dare she? Bleurgh bleurgh bleurgh.” [Laughter.] That was a Jacob Rees-Mogg impression. I talk about the aftermath of what that was like in my book, “A Purposeful Life”. Sometimes I wonder what the purpose of Parliament is if we cannot hold Ministers to account and if we are just going to allow them to lie. Johnson knew he was lying. We all knew he was lying, and he knew we knew he was lying, but the system protected him. We have got to change the system, so that the system does not protect the liar or the lies, but protects Parliament and our democracy.
My hon. Friend is making a passionate and honest speech. Honesty is the best policy. On the system protecting the former Prime Minister, as she alluded to, does she agree that while the motion we are discussing today is on privilege, that privilege is sometimes not afforded to other Members of this Parliament even though we are all elected in the same way? The privilege of saying and doing what we want is not afforded to some Members in this Chamber.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Some people’s privilege extends beyond this House. When they lie in this House, they also have the privilege of their mates in the newspapers and the media then protecting that lie and that privilege. They put that coat of protection around them. Our democracy needs to be strong enough to stop that happening and to expose it.
As we get ever closer to a general election, Ministers will try to whip up moral panic and begin to spread further lies. They will push this fake culture war, some of which we have seen on display today. We cannot wait two years for a Privileges Committee to find them guilty of lying or misleading the House, because that would be too late. The question has to be: what do we do, where do we go and who will stand up for democracy and truth? The former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), is no longer in her place, but she said that as a Prime Minister it was difficult to make decisions about friends. I understand that, because a Prime Minister might make a decision about somebody, then find themselves standing with them in the queue in the Tea Room and feeling bad about it. I completely understand where the former Prime Minister was coming from. The solution should be that we take that responsibility away from the Prime Minister and make it the responsibility of the House to decide when somebody breaks the ministerial code, because we cannot have, as we did, the Prime Minister deciding who is lying and who is not lying, when he was the chief liar himself. That responsibility should become the House’s responsibility.
I have re-tabled my early-day motion on that, which I first tabled in 2021, when it got 105 signatures. I hope more Members will sign that re-tabled early-day motion about how we talk about the ministerial code of conduct. To end, the parliamentary record shows that I was asked to withdraw from Parliament for calling Johnson a liar. I will be writing to the House asking whether that can be expunged, or whether some kind of amendment or addendum can go beside it to say that it was actually correct and he was a liar. I will do that, and I put that on record.
I will end on Winston Churchill, who I understand is Boris Johnson’s favourite politician and who said: “There can be no democracy without truth.”
It is a pleasure to follow my friend the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler). The responsibility that we all have in this House is to defend democracy. We own, collectively, the rules of this House, and we need to consider carefully when we need to refresh them.
I thank all the members of the Privileges Committee for their report, which is damning. The Committee has found Boris Johnson guilty of deliberately misleading the House; deliberately misleading the Committee; breaching confidence; impugning the Committee, thereby undermining the democratic process of this House—our House; and being complicit in the campaign of abuse and attempted intimidation of the Committee. We need to think carefully about that, because we now know that members of the Committee needed to have additional protection put in place because of the former Prime Minister’s actions. It is a disgrace that Members of this House are having their security threatened by the actions of Boris Johnson. Of course, these would be most serious matters for any Member of this House, but for someone who was Prime Minister to be a guilty in such a manner is absolutely unprecedented.
Before I get to the report, let us remind ourselves of how we got into this position. The character, the personality and the traits of Boris Johnson were known long before he became Tory leader and Prime Minister. Indeed, in Prime Minister’s questions on 19 June 2019, during the contest in which Boris Johnson was elected Tory leader, I said to the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May):
“This is a man who is not fit for office. It has been said, ‘The ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy.’ This is a time of challenge, so does the Prime Minister realise that…he has a record of dishonesty?...Does the Prime Minister honestly believe that this man is fit for the office of Prime Minister?”—[Official Report, 19 June 2019; Vol. 662, c. 233-34.]
We knew all about Boris Johnson. The Tory Members knew all about Boris Johnson, yet they were prepared to elect such a figure as their leader and impose him upon us as our Prime Minister.
Sadly, there was always an inevitability that it would end in a dramatic way for Boris Johnson, but we all suffer for his failure to respect the responsibilities that go with the office of Prime Minister. So let me ask the few Tory Members in the Chamber: just why were they prepared to elect a leader with a history of dishonesty? Honesty and integrity are characteristics that we expect from our political leaders—and not just expect but demand. We have a responsibility to society to lead by example. In this place, we are either right honourable or honourable Members. Some of us may find that the rules of this place belong to another time, but that very principle of being honourable, of having honour and behaving with honour, strikes at the heart as a key tenet of our democracy. We have to show that we are all worthy of the public’s respect or we are all diminished. That is why the behaviour of Boris Johnson in office matters.
The backdrop to the matters under consideration was the covid pandemic. How often did we stand in this Chamber to applaud our NHS and all our frontline workers and to implore society—the public—to follow the lockdown rules? So many made sacrifices. The rules were for the rest of us; they were not for Boris Johnson or those around him.
Now we have the verdict of the Privileges Committee. The verdict is indeed a confirmation: Boris Johnson is a liar. We knew that long before now. It is of course not the first time that he has been caught out by his mistruths: he was sacked from The Times for making up a quote and sacked from the Tory Front Bench for lying about an affair. This is the well trodden path of a man who believes he is above the rules that the rest of us must follow. He is the epitome of the Westminster bubble—no longer serving others; instead, serving only themselves.
We are here today because truth still matters. Partygate was a sorry and unforgivable episode even by the low standards that the Government have set, with “bring your own bottle” events and multiple large gatherings with little adherence to social distancing measures. All the while, people around the world were making unimaginable sacrifices to help stop the virus. It is all covered in the report, and Johnson’s desperate excuses are a slap in the face for those who missed funerals and last words with loved ones, and those whose mental health scars from isolation and anxiety remain today.
Johnson argues that the parties were necessary as a “thank you” to staff and to help to motivate them—try telling that to NHS staff and those on the frontline who battled the pandemic day in, day out and who stuck to doing what they were told by the Government. It is hypocrisy on stilts. His other get-out was that he followed the guidance as he understood it. How can he be held accountable if he did not understand his own laws? It was the last desperate stand of a desperate man.
Johnson tried to treat the Committee and the public like idiots. He knew the rules. He broke them willingly and lied about it afterwards. Startlingly, not content with these most dishonourable actions, his behaviour during and after his investigation has been almost contemptible. He has deployed the full Trump handbook of trying to burn all around him to save his own skin. The Committee found that he not only misled it and Parliament but engaged in a campaign of abuse against its members to undermine its findings. He called the Committee a “kangaroo court”, said its findings were “deranged” and called into question its motives and impartiality at every turn. Let us remember that it is a majority-Tory Committee. The tactics were transparent: they are classic Trump, which is why politics across these islands is well rid of Boris Johnson.
Neither Johnson nor Trump has any issue with undermining democratic institutions for their ill-gotten gains. It is born out of the same entitled born-to-rule mentality. I could always see those traits in Johnson, so I am pleased that the Committee has stood up to his threat and let the truth prevail. The truth is also that while Johnson is the nadir of Tory sleaze, he was not the only one who attended these parties. He was in charge at the time, but let us remember that literally dozens around No. 10 received similar fines. Johnson has perhaps shown us one thing: actions do have consequences and lies will catch up with you.
As it is, Boris Johnson is once again the talk of the town, and again for all the wrong reasons. The Committee concluded that he should be suspended from Parliament for 90 days. He, of course, took the coward’s way out and resigned instead of facing up to the punishment—a mark of the man if there ever was one. He will continue his crusade to undermine and attack, just as Trump does in the face of his own struggles in the USA. However, I hope that the public now largely see through Boris Johnson’s bluff and bluster. I think that the most significant punishment for him is that the populist fondness that he once enjoyed is now over. That is something that his ego will take severely.
I genuinely hope that Johnson’s toxic legacy and descent into Trump-style tactics are seen to be precisely that. He has no power now. He has no influence. Make sure that he is never allowed it again.
As we close the door on Boris Johnson, more and more is coming out into the public domain. There is the contempt of those at the Conservative central office Christmas party, as witnessed in the video published by The Mirror this weekend. The behaviour of contempt is still with us: Boris Johnson’s resignation honours are just the latest example. A junior special adviser just in her 30s has been given a job for life as a Member of the House of Lords. Many implicated in partygate are receiving honours; this is sickening to the public. Where is the leadership of the current Prime Minister? He should have stepped in to stop Boris Johnson offering such tainted honours. A disgraced ex-Prime Minister cannot be allowed to confer honours. Will the Prime Minister step in now and bring a stop to this? Will he reverse the honours?
Let us put the report to a vote tonight. Let the House endorse the Privileges Committee report, and let us have a roll call of those going through that Aye lobby. Then, let us finally put an end to the very sorry chapter that was Boris Johnson’s political career.
I will not detain the House too long, but I want to put three points on the record on behalf of my constituents. First, I am sorry to say to my constituents that when Boris Johnson was at the Dispatch Box as Prime Minister and I came to this House for Prime Minister’s questions, the feeling that it was pointless to ask a question because the answer could not be relied upon will not ever leave me as long as I am in politics.
When the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) or any Prime Minister other than Boris Johnson was at the Dispatch Box, I always felt that, political disagreements —as substantial as they are—aside, if I asked a question as a constituency Member of Parliament, I would get an answer that could be relied upon. I might disagree with it or want it to be better, but I would rely on it on behalf of my constituents. I will never forget the sinking feeling that being in this place on behalf of my constituents was pointless. That is the truth at the heart of this report. Members from all sides of the House on the Conservative-majority Committee worked so hard and diligently to produce the evidence that gives us the truth of what has happened.
Secondly, I am sorry that we have been through this terrible time for parliamentary democracy, but I am proud to be in this House and to have listened to the Leader of the House of Commons, the right hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), with whom I agree; the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), with whom I agree; the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), with whom I agree; and the Mother of the House, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), with whom I agree and who has done a diligent job under very difficult circumstances to bring the truth of the situation to the attention of this House.
We should be glad to be in a position to have clarity at last. Because we know what has happened and we can account for it, we can begin to try to understand exactly how it came to be. It is funny that lots of people in public life have commented that we, sort of, knew the truth of what Boris Johnson was like for a long time. We did all, kind of, know that. How was he able to tell the untruths from the Dispatch Box, and why did we have to go through this process, when we all had little reason to believe what he was saying? That is the question I ask myself.
The unfortunate truth that we have to reckon with in this country is the injustice that some people’s testimony is taken as truth more readily than others. I tend to agree with those who have mentioned that structural inequality. Some people’s word is taken as truth. Why were some people so terrified of the covid regulations when others— particularly Boris Johnson, as covered in this report—clearly did not care or feel that what they did mattered? It is because the structural power inequality in our country means that some people’s word is taken as truth more readily than others.
We have so much to learn from this report. Many Members have discussed it well—this has been a good and strong debate. Across this House, we can all move forward and get things right, but if we do not reckon with the injustice that it is so much easier for some people in our country to get a hearing than others, we will never change the power structures. This House must welcome people from different backgrounds who speak with different accents, come from different social classes and have done different jobs. We must be a better House at listening to all voices in our country, not just to some people who, for historical reasons, get heard when others do not.
It is an absolute pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern). I speak in support of the Privileges Committee report and pay tribute to all Committee members, particularly the Chair, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), on the diligence and the evidence-based approach that they have taken in the final report that they produced. The findings are clear. As an evidence-based scientist, I see the golden thread of how they used that evidence going through the report. It is a very strong report in that regard. What is so disappointing, as we have discussed, is that it exposes the shameful behaviour of a Prime Minister of this country. We have talked about the impact that it is having across our country but it has international ramifications as well, which we have not discussed in detail.
I have no doubt that Boris Johnson deliberately misled the House of Commons, not just in relation to the parties that the report focuses on. While people in Oldham, Saddleworth and across the country sacrificed so much during the pandemic lockdowns, Mr Johnson and his team had parties. As they partied, they knew they were breaking the rules. As Prime Minister, he lied about it on the Floor of the House and to the Committee.
I also have evidence of how the former Prime Minister deliberately deceived the House in February 2021 in relation to the publication of covid contracts. The hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), and for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) and I were involved in the High Court action, which showed what contracts had been published according to law and what had not. Boris Johnson said, “No, no. They have all been published,” but we had a High Court decision saying that they had not. That is the absolute gall of the man who was our Prime Minister. To go back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South, when I raised that issue in the House, I was not listened to. When I pointed to the High Court judgment, I was told that that was my view. I tried on a number of occasions, including on 20 April 2021.
Mr Johnson’s most recent antics are quite breathtaking in their selfishness. His denial is breathtaking and is the absolute polar opposite of what the Nolan principles—the standards in public life that we all agreed to abide by—demand of us. His pattern of behaviour, underpinned by an attitude that he is above the law, has tarnished the reputation of the whole House and all its parliamentarians. We are all tarred with the same brush. Our democracy as a whole suffers. Polling from the group Compassion in Politics shows that eight out of 10 people do not trust politicians. That is serious. It is the lowest level of trust we have ever had from the people we represent. How can we represent people if they do not trust us? The report is ultimately about honesty, another of the seven Nolan principles of public life. It should mark a sea change for honesty in politics, because in recent years we have seen the rise of politicians who believe they can mislead without consequences.
Earlier this year, I introduced the Elected Representatives (Code of Conduct) Bill, which proposed the establishment of an ethics commission to look at how to bring our political system into the 21st century. I disagree in some respects with my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant). I think we are past the point where we can say that we can govern ourselves. My Bill had a number of proposals to strengthen things and fill the gaps. The Bill looked to ensure that the adviser on ministerial standards was fully independent—of course, at the moment he is not—and able to commission his or her own inquiries, rather than being subject to the whims of political leaders acting in the interests of their own internal party dynamics. The content of the Privileges Committee report shows a truly egregious example of that, but it is far from the only one.
Ten days ago, I wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to explain the decision he took to ask the adviser on ministerial standards not to investigate allegations that the Home Secretary pressured civil servants into assisting her with a speeding fine she received. My letter asked the Prime Minister whether or not he spoke to Home Office officials and special advisers to ask if the Home Secretary’s version of events was accurate. It also asked him if he reviewed emails sent by Home Office civil servants to the Cabinet Office’s propriety and ethics team, in which they expressed concerns about what was being asked of them by the Home Secretary. It asked him if the independent adviser reviewed any correspondence or conducted any interviews on the matter. To date, I have not received a reply. I wait in anticipation to see if the Prime Minister will fulfil his promise to lead a Government with integrity “at every level”.
I begin by expressing my thanks to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) for her stewardship and for chairing the Privileges Committee with such strength and integrity. I thank all the members of the Committee.
The report was a damning indictment of the former Prime Minister’s behaviour, finding that, yes, he did indeed deliberately mislead the House. That was no surprise to me, as in my opinion he was never suitable for high office, especially the great office of state of Prime Minister, given his disgraceful track record. There is an old saying that goes, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” Let’s face it: there is a litany of examples of Mr Johnson’s failures and lies. He lied about Brexit. He was sacked for lying multiple times. Indeed, he lied to Her late Majesty the Queen. I will be voting to endorse the report. I wish the Committee could have chosen to ban him for life, but I encourage all Conservative Members to join us in the Lobby.
The first point I want to raise is about leadership and accountability. In this place, we are all leaders. I believe that leaders must lead by example. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard and a higher level of accountability, and follow the laws and rules as the representatives of the people, our constituents. That is even more important during a global health emergency. As Prime Minister, Boris Johnson was meant to be responsible for ensuring that everyone in the country was working towards the common goal of defeating covid, so how shameful is it that he failed to uphold the laws he introduced and has shown zero accountability for his actions?
Mr Johnson failed to show any regard for the millions of people in our country, like my constituents in Battersea who followed the law and made huge sacrifices: those who could not visit their dying family members, nor attend their funerals; the ill and disabled people who were stuck without vital health and social care support, not to mention the blanket application of do-not-attempt-resuscitation orders, which were in place up and down the country until we intervened on the then Health Secretary; and the small businesses economically impacted by lockdown, causing immense financial hardship that some are still experiencing today. I honestly could go on, sharing more examples, but let us not forget the more than 225,000 people who lost their lives to covid. Yet there has been no apology from the former Prime Minister. Instead, enabled by his supporters, he claimed that there had been a “sustained attempt, seemingly co-ordinated” to weaken him. We have heard some distasteful examples of that this evening.
My third point is about Boris Johnson’s persistent undermining of Parliament and the impact that his reckless actions have had on Parliament and on trust. Our parliamentary democracy depends on Members across the House being certain that Ministers can and will tell the truth and that if, for any reason, a Minister makes a mistake at the Dispatch Box, they will come to the House and correct the record. That is how this place should function. One would think that, as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson would have known the importance of that, but he put our parliamentary democracy at risk when he thought—in fact, I think he probably believes it now—that the rules did not apply to him and debased the greatest office of state. I have to ask—and I think we would all ask—what message that sends to the public, our constituents. What confidence can they have in this place and in our political institutions? This has to be a watershed moment for us in this House.
My final point is about our current Prime Minister and some other Conservative Members. They knew that the former Prime Minister had misled the House—they knew that he had lied—but they failed to act to remove him, instead allowing him to continue in office. We were all here on these Benches, watching him at the Dispatch Box. Worse still, even after the lies had been revealed, those Members thought it right for taxpayers to pick up the tab, paying for his legal fees of up to £250,000 during this cost of living crisis. As for all the talk from the current Prime Minister about integrity, he has failed to do the right thing and block the former Prime Minister’s honours list. It was well within his gift to do so, but he chose not to. Why? Because he is too weak, and his absence today demonstrates just how weak he is. We can see from the Conservative Benches who is still in control of that party.
It is clear that the current Government cannot be trusted with our precious democracy. This Government govern only for themselves and their own interests. It is always one rule for them and another for everyone else, and that is not good enough. They do not care about the public interest: we saw that not only when they kept Boris Johnson in power for so long, but when they handed out covid contracts to their friends and cronies, and I could go on.
This Government have presided over one of the worst scandals in our country’s history. I believe that it is time to restore trust in our parliamentary democracy, because if we do not have trust in our democracy and in this place, what do we have? It is a privilege to serve here; I certainly see it as a privilege. It is not my right to be here. It is no one’s right to be here. Our constituents elect us, and we take an oath of office when we stand in this place. It is important for all Members in all parts of the House to remember that.
It is an honour to follow my friend and constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), who reminded us of our role as Members of Parliament. I was elected in 2019, and during the last three and half years—an interesting three and a half years—I have always held dear, and kept close to my heart, the fact that being an hon. Member comes with responsibilities. Sadly, as my hon. Friend said, there are some people in the House who feel that it is their birthright, but I am humbled to have been elected by my constituents. I take pride in that, and every time I stand up in this Chamber, I remember that I am here to speak on their behalf, not mine. I am here to articulate their concerns and their interests to the Government of the day. I am here to work across parties, and there are some Conservative Members with whom I have done a great deal of work on issues that are in the interests of our constituents. That is why what we are debating matters: it is about the fabric of our democracy.
A number of Members have said that this is a kangaroo court or that it does not matter, but let us stick to the facts. On 21 April 2022, this House, without Division, referred to the Privileges Committee the matter concerning the former Prime Minister’s conduct. That cross-party Committee has at all times followed the law and the customs set by Parliament, and the fundamental procedures governed by the Standing Orders and precedent of this House. All the evidence that the Committee heard in the course of its inquiry was given under oath, including the evidence from the former Prime Minister and the signed evidence. The former Prime Minister had the opportunity to give written and oral evidence, which he did on 22 March; I understand that he subsequently gave written evidence on 22 May.
After all that work, the Committee’s conclusions were presented to the former Prime Minister, who, for want of a better phrase, went out on a hissy fit and got quite angry, breaking with procedures and confidentiality. What we are discussing matters if we are to restore trust in our democracy.
One of the best aspects of this role is going around to visit schools. When we speak to young people, they do not lie, and they will ask honest questions. To have young people in my constituency ask me, “Why do MPs lie?”, is quite hard. When we are sat in front of those young people, what do we say? We want to say to them, “The majority of Members are doing a decent job. The majority of Members are here to represent their constituents,” but what those young people see and hear from their parents and carers paints a different picture. That is why what we are discussing today matters.
We want more young people to get involved in our politics. We want people to trust our democratic system, but that will not happen if we have Ministers misleading the House.
The hon. Member is making an important point. Much of the education of our young people is based on the concept of true and false, including mathematics, chemistry, physics and biology. This sum of human knowledge is based on facts, which are either right or wrong, and there is a clear concept of what that means. That reminds us why these concepts are so valuable. I draw the House’s attention to a poem written by Hilaire Belloc in 1907 called “Matilda”—read it; it is instructive.
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention, and I agree. I read many books to my eight-year-old and six-year-old and I will make sure that we add that to our collection.
The Committee found that the former Prime Minister deliberately misled the House and the Committee, breached confidence, impugned the Committee and was complicit in a campaign of abuse and intimidation towards it. When people ask me, “What don’t you like about your role as an MP?”, I am very honest. One of the sad aspects of being a Member of Parliament is the abuse, the misogyny, the racism and the threats that I have faced and that other Members face just for doing the job that we like. To see that Committee members, having been asked by us in this House to carry out that role, have faced abuse and intimidation is worrying. No one should have to face that for carrying out their role.
I want to bring us back to why all this matters. I have spoken in this House on many occasions about the tragic death of Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, who was 13 years old. He was one of the youngest people who lost his life to covid, and his family could not attend the funeral. I still remember when I spoke to his mum and his sisters to console them. As I have mentioned, I broke down on that call because to hear a mother say, “I wasn’t able to hold my son. I’m never going to see him again,” was hard.
The covid memorial wall is just across the river in my constituency, and when one walks up and down and looks at the hearts and the lives lost, one cannot fail to be moved. Those were the families who followed the rules. They were the ones who sacrificed those precious moments for the ones they loved. They are the ones who will look at this report and ask, “Why did we?”
Not only do we have a former Prime Minister who broke the rules he was primarily responsible for setting, but we have a former Prime Minister who went on to mislead the House and be disingenuous in his statements. The public rightly expect high standards from us. Going back to the report, it is not just about high standards. It is about being truthful, owning up to our mistakes and taking responsibility. How can any of us, as hon. Members, ask our constituents to trust us if we do not take these breaches of trust seriously? I understand that the consequences of his own actions may be a novel concept for the former Prime Minister, but we have to deliver those consequences today if we are to ask our constituents to trust us.
I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), my constituency neighbour, whose fair and experienced chairing of the Committee produced this report. It is disgraceful that the Committee’s members have faced inaccurate and unjust briefings against them.
I finish by reading from a poem, “Anthem for the pandemic dead” by Susie Flintham, which we heard on the second anniversary of the first hearts being drawn on the covid memorial wall, an event I attended, with many Members who are in this Chamber, on Wednesday 29 March:
“Ours shall be the voice of the lost
Names resurrected, candles lit, heads bowed
We the ones who contemplate the cost
We the ones who speak their names aloud.
They exist between one heartbeat and another,
The heart that inexplicably still beats.
We speak their names while the world recovers.
To us, recovery is bittersweet.”
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), and particularly the powerful poem she just quoted.
I rise to express my sincere gratitude to the Privileges Committee, particularly the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), and all the staff and Clerks who supported its vital work, which is of profound democratic importance to this country.
I speak today with a feeling of overwhelming relief that, at last, the truth is being told in this House and the collective gaslighting of a nation is finally over. In a way, it is shocking that a parliamentary Committee has had to spell out:
“If Ministers cannot be trusted to tell the truth, the House cannot do its job”.
Even more shocking is that, on this occasion, the Minister in question was the most senior person in Government, the Prime Minister—a Prime Minister who sought to obscure the truth from those to whom he was accountable by lying deliberately and repeatedly, and who, by lying to Parliament, was also lying to the people who elect it; and a Prime Minister who has effectively shredded the ministerial code, which is, in the words of the constitutional historian Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield,
“a crucial part of the spinal cord of the constitution”.
Boris Johnson announced on the day the report was published:
“This is a dreadful day for MPs and for democracy.”
In fact, the reverse is true. It was a day that saw British parliamentary democracy vindicated against an unprecedented attack. But let us be very clear that our democracy is fragile and that there was nothing inevitable about this particular outcome.
The report shows that our “good chap” conventions of government allowed a rogue Prime Minister to run amok for far too long. It offers some hope because it also shows that, if an MP or, indeed, a Prime Minister deliberately lies and undermines the processes of this House, they can be held to account. But I say “can be”, not “will be”, advisedly, because this inquiry had to be fought for. There was nothing guaranteed about it, because our standards systems are still not fit for purpose.
It is both negligent and dangerous to assume democracy is inevitable, perpetual and unshakeable. It is not. It is breakable and contingent. We have to actively and vigilantly defend it, which is why standing together as a Parliament in support of the Privileges Committee’s report is so essential, and why it goes beyond just the rogue activities of one particular Member of Parliament.
We also need to strengthen the mechanisms we have to hold Government to account because there remain serious instances of former Ministers misleading this House that have gone uncorrected and unchallenged. We need new mechanisms to call any Minister, including a Prime Minister, to account if they deliberately mislead the House—a view shared prior to partygate, in 2021, by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, chaired by Lord Evans. It is shocking that the role of the so-called independent adviser on the ministerial code is, essentially, false advertising, and will continue to be so until that person is appointed by an independent panel, is able to initiate their own investigations and has the authority to determine breaches of the code. Those basic, yet fundamental changes would allow Back Benchers to raise concerns and evidence with the adviser, who could then act as they, and not just the Prime Minister, saw fit.
The current Prime Minister could have made those changes, but he has chosen not to. Nor has he appointed an anti-corruption champion after the position has been left vacant for more than a year. Our systems need to be strengthened so that, if a Minister misleads the House deliberately, or if they do it inadvertently but do not correct at the earliest opportunity, a formal process to hold them to account should be an inevitability. This inquiry only came about in April 2022 because of the spiralling unease and rebellion of some Members on Boris Johnson’s Back Benches, which meant he could not whip his MPs to prevent it. Over a year before that, in April 2021, I joined a wide cross-party group of MPs to call for an inquiry into Boris Johnson’s repeated lies to the House on other matters, and it did not happen. So it was somewhat ironic to learn, via a subject access request, how that call has been labelled as “misinformation” or indeed “disinformation” by one of the Government units supposed to be acting as an arbiter of accuracy and honesty.
Hon. Members of all parties must stand by this Committee and demonstrate that rules matter, that Parliament is more important than party and that standards in public life must be upheld. Conservative Members, in particular, must face down the Trumpian intimidation orchestrated by a small band of, frankly, anti-democratic Johnson supporters. Those Members need to be very clear that abstention is not just cowardice—it is complicity in the former Prime Minister’s contempt of Parliament.
The current Prime Minister ought to be here. He ought to be leading by example. Instead, he has chosen to be silent and is conspicuous by his absence tonight. Nor has he even ruled out the idea that Mr Johnson could be permitted to stand as a Conservative parliamentary candidate some time in the future. If there were any shred of seriousness in the Prime Minister’s pledge to restore accountability and integrity to public life, he should unambiguously endorse the Privileges Committee report tonight and urge his fellow party Members to do the same.
Does the hon. Lady agree that, with the Prime Minister not attending and failing to vote, he is endorsing the conduct? Is not it time that we depart from this principle of dishonesty, which was baked into the offer made by Boris Johnson originally? That is what got us into this mess in the first place; it was deemed to be acceptable in return for electoral advantage.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and agree entirely with the points he makes. By not speaking out tonight, the Prime Minister is guilty of collusion, effectively. He has not stood up for the key principles at stake and he has not done his duty tonight.
To conclude, this Committee report is a vital part of the fightback against post-truth politics. Truth is not a technicality. As the report states, our democracy depends on it. So what is at stake here are our most profound democratic principles and the very concept of decency in public life: leading by example versus hypocrisy; truth versus lies; and respect versus contempt. There can be no failing to turn up or sitting on the sidelines. The choice is either being prepared to stand up and defend democracy, or being prepared to turn a blind eye to it being under attack. This is much bigger than one rogue Prime Minister. All of us will be rightly judged tonight on what we choose to do.
Every time another news story breaks about the conduct of the former Prime Minister during the pandemic, I am reminded of the quote attributed to Sir Douglas Bader:
“Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools.”
I have never agreed with that sentiment and I certainly do not now, because while our constituents followed the rules, frontline workers risked their lives and people lost their lives to the deadly virus, the former Prime Minister misled this House and our constituents and took us all for fools.
I echo the thanks expressed by hon. Members across the House to the members of the Committee, who have worked diligently to bring us this report, often under the most difficult circumstances. The report could not be clearer. People feel angry, betrayed and let down. I could stand here all day and talk about the anger and injustice felt by so many people.
Last week, I met the landlord of a pub in the heart of my constituency. Like so many other businesses in Chester, he closed up shop as soon as the former Prime Minister instructed him to do so. He observed all the lockdown rules and guidance, and, like thousands of other small businesses, the price paid was a heavy one. Some are still feeling the impact to this day.
Chester Zoo fought tooth and nail to keep going and caring for the thousands of animals and plants, with the mission of preventing extinction, with no money coming in. Workers at the zoo thought No. 10 was working hard to help them; they are now disappointed and saddened at what the Committee has discovered was actually going on.
Finally, two of my constituents, whom I met at the service of remembrance at the covid memorial wall, just across Westminster bridge, stood in tears remembering their late parents, who died within 24 hours of each other during the pandemic. They pointed at the Houses of Parliament and said, “We will never forget and we will never forgive.”
As the report spells out, if the Prime Minister cannot be trusted to tell the truth, then Parliament cannot do what it should do. The public’s confidence in democracy has been undermined and the public want him to be held accountable for undermining our democracy. On behalf of my constituents and everyone who did follow the rules, I will be voting for the motion. The Government, including our current Prime Minister, should follow precedent, approve the report and endorse the sanctions in full.
Boris Johnson is a liar. It would have been unthinkable to say that in this House only a few short months ago: Boris Johnson is a liar. There is something still fundamentally and profoundly shocking about saying that in this hallowed setting of the House of Commons—this institution that we revere so much. But there is no other way to put it: Boris Johnson lied to this House.
We were saying that long before that concept became fashionable. The SNP even held a debate on that very issue several months ago, to highlight that point and to ensure it was heard loud and clear in this Chamber. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) was grandly marched out of this place for asserting something that is now a profound truth, as was the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler). She is absolutely right that a retrospective apology should now go to both of those Members for getting it absolutely right. There is a stain on their parliamentary records for the fact that they were asked to leave this place for saying something that we now know to be a conventional truth.
SNP Members were some of the first to bring up issues about the parties. We wanted to ensure that the House understood clearly what was going on: we had a Prime Minister who was happy to have drinks parties for his staff in a number of locations in No. 10, when he had overseen the introduction of legislation that everybody else in this country diligently followed. Constituents of ours missed christenings and weddings—for goodness sake, they missed funerals—while seeing newspaper photos of that Prime Minister standing with glasses of wine in his hand. We said that his cavalier attitude towards interpreting the rules—rules that he himself had set—made him unfit for public office. We knew that a reckoning would be coming and that, eventually, his reign of chaos would come to an inevitable and disastrous end. This report vindicates us utterly and absolutely for everything that we have been saying for 15 or 16 months. We even predicted his response to this report: his refusal to take responsibility; his lashing out at others who had correctly judged him; his attempts to undermine others who had adjudicated on this process; and his attempts to divert attention and to obfuscate.
Although this report is bad enough—and it is awful—his behaviour since has compounded everything that we thought we knew about him. It is hard to believe that there has ever been anyone so ill-equipped for high office or so ill-disposed to lead a country. He is a man-child playing politics. He invented this bizarre persona to sustain him through the day, creating a smoke screen to divert attention from his real essence.
Johnson’s inevitable defenestration and removal from public life could almost have been scripted. Not for Boris Johnson a casual and easy departing into the night, but the screaming and shouting of someone who just cannot leave the scene. Not for him any hanging around to accept his punishment and the verdict of his peers. He was such a coward when it came to this decision that he quickly resigned his seat so that he would be beyond the clutches of this Parliament. Almost unbelievably, though, he still hankers after this notion—this fantasy—that he will have some route back to elected politics. It is hard to imagine a situation where that would be allowed in this House. I think that we can conclude today that he is toast and thank God he has gone.
Let me turn now to some of the responses of Conservative Members. They knew everything about Johnson. He is a serial sackee. There are very few places where he has worked that he has not been sacked from, but they still made him Prime Minister. I made my maiden speech the same day as Boris Johnson. I actually followed him from these Benches the day he made his maiden speech. Even at that point there were doubts about his character—his ability even to be just a Member of Parliament. But not for Conservative Members; they went on to make him Prime Minister. They celebrated him. They cheered him on through his bizarre and boorish speeches. They credited him with the 2019 victory and they made sure that it was him who delivered the disaster that is Brexit—something that my constituents, as well as constituents right round this country, are still paying for.
We are in the end period of the Johnsonian era. Regardless of how much Conservative Members want to move on, they will never be able to move on from him until they take decisive action to cleanse their party from the stain of him—something that they do not seem prepared to do. But they have an opportunity to do so tonight. There will be a vote. Here is the challenge to every single member of the Conservative party: line up with us and back the Privileges Committee report and ensure that we have a decisive outcome in this House. Every Member has an opportunity to express their opinion.
We do not share the reverence for this place that other Members on both sides of the House have. We want to leave it. We do not share the value that people place on this House of Commons. We are not dewy-eyed about it. But there are things that we do believe in: democracy, truth, and doing the right thing. Those are the fundamental values of politics that should determine the actions of everybody here. Failure to live up to them should have a consequence—a consequence that should be taken forward right now. I do not think that the report of the Committee of Privileges went far enough. I would have had Johnson banned and excluded from ever getting back into elected politics, but I welcome what the Committee has done—the thorough job that it has undertaken on behalf of everybody in the House. I now say to everyone in the Chamber: back us this evening. Let us speak with one voice, with everyone trooping through the Lobby. There should be no return for Johnson. Let us pledge that loud and clear.
This Friday marks my first anniversary of being elected to this House, but this is perhaps one of the most powerful moments I have experienced. It is a chance for us all to begin to reset trust in our politics. I put on record my thanks to the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House, who have sat and listened to each and every word of this debate. I know that does not always happen.
This time last year, I was still pounding the pavements in the Wakefield by-election. Yes, people wanted a fresh start in Wakefield, but they also wanted Boris Johnson out of office because they did not trust him. They felt betrayed by him and by the wider Conservative party. They knew he had been to those parties while their loved ones lay dying in hospitals and care homes. I have heard too many heartbreaking stories about that last phone call or last text message with their mum, husband or sister from people still raw with grief and anger. Their stories and the sheer pain in their eyes will stay with me forever.
I am afraid it is not a surprise to most of the country that this report is so damning. Deliberately misleading the House and the Privileges Committee are very serious conclusions to reach, but that was not just a one-off. The report clearly evidences a concerning pattern of behaviour. The Committee’s findings are damning, but they are nothing that the people of Wakefield had not already concluded a year ago when they told the Tories decisively that enough was enough.
For those on the Government Benches who are here today to defend the indefensible, it is worth reflecting on what the public think. A YouGov poll last week seemed to chime closely with what I have heard speaking to people in Wakefield, with 69% of those surveyed thinking that Mr Johnson knowingly