Analysis

Damning, damaging and divisive: MPs’ report into the Partygate row is devastating for Boris Johnson

NationalWorld’s politics editor Tom Hourigan considers the implications of the Privileges Committee report for Boris Johnson and the Conservative party
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We’d known for some time that the report on whether Boris Johnson misled Parliament over the Partygate scandal was likely to be highly critical of him. But we couldn’t possibly have expected it would be this damning.

Running to more than 100 pages, the seven MPs on the Privileges Committee utterly excoriate the former Prime Minister. They say he lied to the Commons. They claim he was “deliberately disingenuous” in some of the explanations he gave for parties and other events he was questioned about, and gave “unsustainable interpretations” of the Covid rules in place at the time to explain them away.

One of the most damning documents released by the committee is a statement it received from a Downing Street staff member. This person suggests it was impossible for Johnson not to know about lockdown gatherings because they were happening constantly. “Wine Time Fridays” and birthday parties continued, they claim, while the rest of the country was in lockdown. Number 10 was - in their view - an “oasis of normality” while staff were reminded by the security team not to forget there were cameras outside.

“Very serious contempt”

Perhaps most significantly, the committee accuses Johnson of damaging democracy. Our institutions, it says, depend 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 confidence of the public is undermined”. It also make plain its fury that Johnson gave a lengthy statement about a preliminary copy of the report before it was published. The committee points out he did this knowing it “would not be in a position to respond publicly” - and so was a “very serious contempt” in itself.

Boris Johnson has called the Partygate scandal report a lie (Pic:Getty)Boris Johnson has called the Partygate scandal report a lie (Pic:Getty)
Boris Johnson has called the Partygate scandal report a lie (Pic:Getty)

This meant Johnson’s punishment was increased. If he hadn’t resigned as an MP after seeing an advance copy of the report, the Privileges Committee would have recommended a 90-day suspension from Parliament. Only Keith Vaz - the former Labour MP caught up in a sex and drugs scandal - has faced a longer ban from the Parliamentary estate (he was suspended for six months).

The free vote

Johnson may have quit the Commons, but the committee put forward another recommendation: that the pass given to former MPs so they can come and go from Westminster as they please is revoked from him. This - and the report’s other findings - will be debated in Parliament on Monday (19 June). Crucially, there will then be a free vote on all of this - meaning Rishi Sunak won’t ask Conservatives to oppose the committee’s recommendations.

The outcome will help us finally answer the question that’s dogged the Tory party ever since Johnson was ousted from office: for all the noise from his allies that he never should have been removed and still commands huge support, how many of them are prepared to put their money where their mouth is and back him? What will Sunak himself do? Abstain so as to not rock the boat of a party still very much fraying at the edges? The result will be public - so there’s nowhere for anyone to hide.

Johnson’s allies still stand by his side

MPs loyal to Johnson - who feel they owe their political careers to him - have come out very strongly for him today. They don’t mince their words: look at this tweet from Brendan Clarke-Smith, for instance, which calls the committee’s report “spiteful and vindictive” and even comes with its own pre-prepared “I’m Backing Boris” graphic.

Other Johnson allies like Simon Clarke, Mark Jenkinson and Nadine Dorries - who’s delayed her own departure from the Commons to interrogate the government about why she didn’t get a peerage last week - have been equally vocal. There’s a common theme to their descriptions of the report: “absolutely extraordinary” and “gross overreach” pop up several times. James Duddridge even suggests the committee should have just gone “the full way, put Boris in the stocks” and thrown “rotten food at him”.

But at the time of writing, fewer than 10 Tory MPs had publicly declared their continued support for Johnson in the face of this report. It adds to the impression that the bulk of the party has moved on, or at least wants to - relieved that the ex-PM’s time in Parliament is over and hoping his departure makes his attacks on Sunak and the current government less potent.

Abject fury

And what about Johnson himself? His reaction to the report - a 1,700 word essay - is ferocious and visceral. He calls the committee’s work a “charade”, “rubbish” and the “final knife-thrust of a political assassination”. He also says he’s the victim of hypocrisy after one of the committee members - Sir Bernard Jenkin - was accused yesterday of attending his own Covid-breaking lockdown party.

Johnson genuinely feels he’s been shafted, and his entourage shares that view. This is by no means the last we will hear of him, even in the short term: aside from Monday’s vote, the government is still fighting to keep many of his WhatsApp messages and notebooks out of view of the Covid inquiry in a battle that’s heading to the courts. The animosity between Johnson and Sunak is also now so intense, the ex-PM will use every opportunity he can to undermine his successor. And you can be sure people who sympathise with his arguments - and believe he was driven out of the job he always dreamed of - will continue listening to him.

But it’s impossible to escape the feeling that Johnson’s intense anger over this whole saga is motivated partly by regret; that within the space of a year, he’s gone from Downing Street to civilian life and there wasn’t enough support in the Conservative party for him to chart a different course.

When details of his resignation from Parliament broke last Friday night, I was in a busy central London pub - with big screen TVs showing the news all evening. Barely anyone looked up from their pints or stopped their conversations. It felt then like Johnson had already become yesterday’s man - and this report may just have sealed it.

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