Aubrey Allegretti Political correspondent
Sun, 7 August 2022 at 2:52 pm
Conservatives MPs want to do a deal with Boris Johnson for him to quit parliament and in return axe the inquiry into whether he misled them over Partygate, as allies of the prime minister branded it a “witch-hunt”.
Although he is due to leave No 10 in less than a month, a Commons privileges committee inquiry is still ongoing into the prime minister’s initial denials in December last year that any Covid laws were broken during lockdown.
Some of Johnson’s critics want him to stand down as an MP, to avoid the process keeping the spotlight on a deeply embarrassing issue for the party that has strained relations between colleagues.
The investigation, which is being led by a committee with a Tory majority that chose Labour’s Harriet Harman to chair it, is expected to drag on for months.
A tranche of evidence has been demanded by the committee, including Johnson’s diaries covering the 12 days on which parties were held in Westminster in defiance of Covid rules, as well as emails, WhatsApp messages, photographs, internal notes and a list of deleted documents.
If Johnson is found to have misled parliament, he could face suspension from the Commons and a recall petition, which, if signed by 10% of his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituents, would trigger a byelection.
Unlike when Conservative MPs were whipped to save Owen Paterson, which sparked unrest within the party’s ranks over sleaze and scandal, some of Johnson’s fiercest Tory opponents said they would happily support ending the Partygate investigation if Johnson stepped down as an MP.
One source said: “I think there’s a case – not just for the parliament party, but for everyone – that we just move on from this psychodrama.”
The “quid pro quo” for backing a motion that would effectively wind up the probe would be Johnson “getting out of the Commons”, they added.
Another Tory MP who helped bring down Johnson said if the incoming prime minister decided to spare Johnson’s fate by tabling a motion in the Commons to end the investigation and asked for colleagues’ support, “that’s fine”.
“I can see the benefit of him going being satisfactory,” they said. “The overriding political objective has been achieved. It depends if our next leader wants to continue this internecine warfare in the Conservative party or will just take the hit.”
If Johnson did quit as an MP, a byelection would be triggered. He won the west London seat in 2019 with a majority of just 7,210. As the Conservatives have not held a poll lead since December 2021 and lost a string of safe Tory seats over the past year, holding Uxbridge and South Ruislip would not be a certainty.
One of Johnson’s closest allies, the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, insisted he would stay in politics, but suggested the privileges committee inquiry should be ended anyway.
“If this witch-hunt continues, it will be the most egregious abuse of power witnessed in Westminster,” she tweeted on Sunday. “It will cast serious doubt not only on the reputation of individual MPs sitting on the committee, but on the processes of parliament and democracy itself.”
Dorries also accused the seven MPs behind the investigation of operating a “kangaroo court”, and said Johnson had been “brutally removed”.
She called for fellow supporters of the outgoing prime minister to unite behind Liz Truss, the frontrunner in the Tory leadership race.
Asked what Johnson would do next, Dorries told the Sunday Express: “Boris absolutely will stay in politics. You won’t get rid of Boris.”
Zac Goldsmith, another Johnson ally who was made a peer by the prime minister when he lost his seat in 2019, said the Partygate investigation was “clearly rigged”.
“It is a jury comprised of highly partisan, vengeful and vindictive MPs, nearly all of whom are already on the record viciously attacking the person they are judging,” he tweeted. “It is an obscene abuse of power.”
The Tory backbencher Bill Cash has drafted a motion calling for the scrapping of the inquiry, claiming it is “unnecessary” given Johnson’s departure from Downing Street at the start of September.
Chris Bryant, a Labour MP who recused himself from chairing the inquiry after publicly criticising Johnson, said he was “not aware of a single historic instance when a privileges inquiry was abandoned”.
“Arguing for it to be abandoned shows an extraordinary degree of complicity in Johnson’s wrongdoing and a very casual attitude towards standards and truth-telling in parliament,” he said. “If the government tables a motion to rescind, the Tories will all be lashing themselves to the Johnson mast all over again.”
A spokesperson for the privileges committee said the inquiry was being conducted properly and denied there had been any change to the rules or terms of reference.
They said a background paper on whether Johnson could be found in contempt of parliament was prepared by a senior clerk, all of whom “are strictly politically impartial”.
They added that advice had been taken from the former court of appeal judge Sir Ernest Ryder, which was published for transparency.