Boris Johnson could be suspended from Parliament and even forced to face a by-election if he is found to have lied to MPs.
Today (22 March), the former Prime Minister will be grilled by the Privileges Committee over whether he committed a contempt of Parliament when he, on four occasions, told MPs at PMQs that there had been no breaches of lockdown guidance at Number 10.
In written evidence published ahead of the hearing, Johnson has accepted that he misled Parliament, but has insisted that his denials over parties at Downing Street were made “in good faith” based on what he “honestly” knew at the time. He is therefore expected to argue that he “did not intentionally or recklessly mislead the House”.
However, the Privileges Committee could still decide that Johnson, who was issued a fixed penalty notice for breaching lockdown rules in 2020, did in fact deliberately mislead MPs over Partygate. If this happens, the former Prime Minister could face punishment - the severity of which will be recommended by the Privileges Committee. There will then be a vote in the House of Commons.
But why exactly is Johnson under investigation over Partygate, what punishments could he face, and how likely is it that the Committee will decide he misled Parliament? Here’s everything you need to know before the hearing begins.
Why is Boris Johnson being investigated for misleading Parliament?
Johnson came under intense fire back in December 2021 when news broke that parties had been held at Downing Street while the UK was under a strict lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Over the next few weeks, a range of ‘gatherings’ were found to have been organised at Downing Street - including a birthday celebration for Johnson in June 2020, and a leaving do for a special adviser in November 2020.
There followed a Metropolitan Police investigation into the alleged restriction breaches, as well as a damning report into the scandal by civil servant Sue Gray. Johnson was ultimately issued a fixed penalty notice for breaching lockdown rules.
So Johnson is not being investigated over whether he broke the rules - that has already been decided. Instead, he is under investigation over whether he misled Parliament when, in December 2021, in response to the reports, he assured MPs that “all guidance was followed in Number 10”, and stated: “I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken.”
It is already understood, and accepted by Johnson, that he mislead Parliament. But it is up to the Privileges Committee to decide whether he did so intentionally, recklessly, or, as Johnson has argued, “in good faith”.
How will the case be handled?
The Privileges Committee has been gathering evidence into the case over the last several months - with a preliminary report already been published. The Committee has looked at text and email exchanges between Number 10 officials, and spoken to whistleblowers who were able to give evidence anonymously. Johnson was also ordered to hand over a cache of documents to the Inquiry.
Johnson has also submitted written evidence, which the Committee will consider. But the main event is Johnson’s grilling later today, which the public will be able to watch live.
In terms of how a conclusion will be reached, the Privileges Committee has said that the case will be considered “on the balance of probabilities” – which is a lower standard than the criminal test of “beyond reasonable doubt”.
What punishments could the former Prime Minister face?
Johnson could face a range of sanctions depending on the outcome of the hearing. As the former Prime Minister is insisting that he is innocent, of both intentionally and recklessly misleading Parliament, he will be arguing for no penalty - which could happen. However, other punishments he could face include:
- A written apology
- Docking of salary
- Suspension from Parliament for a specific period
The last of these is the most serious, as if Johnson is suspended from Parliament for 10 or more sitting days, or 14 calendar days, a recall petition could be triggered.
What happens if a recall petition is triggered?
House of Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle previously confirmed that the Privileges Committee’s findings would fall within the remit of the Recall of MPs Act, following advice from a leading lawyer. If this happens, voters in Johnson’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency will vote on whether there should be a by-election. If 10% of them call for one, a by-election will be triggered.
What happens in a by-election?
A by-election happens when a seat in the House of Commons becomes vacant between general elections. Candidates from different political parties will then campaign to be elected, as is done during a normal election.
Johnson would still be eligible to stand again to become an MP.
How likely is this to happen?
The Privileges Committee’s preliminary report into the Partygate Inquiry did not look particularly good for Johnson, which is a possible indicator of how today’s hearing could go for him.
The report stated that breaches of coronavirus rules would have been “obvious” to the former Prime Minister, arguing that there is indeed evidence that Johnson misled the House of Commons multiple times - when he repeatedly claimed that no lockdown rules had been broken at Downing Street. The Privileges Committee also cited a series of remarks made by Johnson as proof of its claim - with one of the most damning examples being when the MP remarked he was at “probably the most unsocially distanced gathering in the UK”, during a mid-pandemic leaving party.
Evidence also included messages between a Number 10 official and Downing Street’s then-communications director Jack Doyle, where the pair discussed the birthday gathering held for Johnson in 2020.
Mr Doyle wrote: “I’m struggling to come up with a way this one is in the rules in my head.” Then, in response to a suggestion that they describe the event as “reasonably necessary for work purposes”, he said: “Not sure that one works, does it? Also blows another great gaping hole in the PM’s account, doesn’t it?’”