Harriet Harman confirmed as inquiry chair after Tory bid to block her appointment fails
Boris Johnson will not face a grilling by the committee investigating whether he lied to parliament over Downing Street parties until the autumn, it was revealed as the inquiry was formally launched today.
A Conservative bid to block Harriet Harman from leading the investigation failed, after the senior Labour MP was confirmed as chair today.
But no decision has yet been taken over whether oral evidence sessions of questioning by the Commons Privileges committee will be held in public and before the TV cameras.
The Commons voted in April for the committee to conduct an investigation into whether Mr Johnson’s repeated denials that Covid lockdown rules were broken at No 10 amounted to a contempt of parliament.
A finding of contempt could put the prime minister’s position in doubt, by allowing MPs to vote on a suspension from parliament, which could itself trigger a recall petition in his Uxbridge constituency.
And the PM would be in peril simply for being found to have lied to parliament, something which the ministerial code of conduct treats as a resigning offence. If he resisted pressure to resign in those circumstances, Tory backbenchers have made clear they would attempt to force a second no-confidence vote.
At a meeting today to confirm Ms Harman’s chairmanship, it was agreed to appoint former Appeal Court judge Sir Ernest Ryder as an adviser. Sir Ernest recently completed a review of the fairness and natural justice within the House of Commons standards system.
In a move seemingly designed to encourage potential No 10 whistle-blowers to come forward, the committee confirmed that it is willing to take both oral and written evidence from witnesses who wish to remain anonymous.
The committee has an in-built Conservative majority, with four Tory MPs, two from Labour and one from the SNP. All eyes will be on the Tory members, who are expected to come under intense pressure to spare the prime minister by voting along party lines.
Minister Michael Ellis earlier this month offered his support to Tory MPs who were trying to block Harman as chair on the grounds that the Mother of the House had previously tweeted her belief that the PM lied.
Speaking from the despatch box, Mr Ellis agreed with an MP who asked whether it was right that “those placed in a position of judgment over others must not have a previously stated position on the matter in question”, saying it was a “very good point”.
As reports of lockdown-breaching parties at Downing Street first emerged last December, Mr Johnson told the House of Commons that “all guidance was followed in No 10” and that “I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken”.
After aide Allegra Stratton resigned for joking about parties, he told MPs that he was “sickened myself and furious about that”, but had been “repeatedly assured that the rules were not broken”. He said that “the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times”.
A police inquiry later issued 126 fixed penalty notices for lockdown breaches to 83 people at No 10, including the prime minister.
The committee issued a call for evidence about the PM’s knowledge of activities in 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office during Covid regulations and about any briefings given to, or inquiries made by, Mr Johnson relating to those events.
The committee announced that it will spend the coming weeks finalising details of the procedure for the inquiry – including the question of whether evidence sessions will be held in private – before starting hearings in the autumn.