Adam Forrest and Kate Devlin
Sun, 19 March 2023 at 3:51 pm GMT
Boris Johnson has been urged to be “tell the truth for once” at this week’s Partygate grilling, as Tory MPs fear the televised hearing risks reigniting Tory psychodrama after a successful few weeks for Rishi Sunak.
The former Tory PM is fighting to save his career as he hunkers down with his legal team to prepare for Wednesday’s four-hour showdown on whether he lied to parliament about his knowledge of rule-breaking parties during Covid.
In the dirtiest political fight seen in years, Johnson allies have launched an attempt to undermine the inquiry, calling it a “witchhunt” and putting pressure on four Tory MPs on the committee to quit.
On Monday Mr Johnson will hand over a 50-page dossier the privileges committee in a bid to counter the cross-party group’s initial report which found rule breaches would have been “obvious” to the former PM.
But senior Tory MPs told The Independent said it would be unwise for Mr Johnson to try to attack the committee or former civil servant Sue Gray on Wednesday – urging him to “co-operate” and answer honestly.
And an exclusive new poll for The Independent has found two in three voters think the ex-Tory leader should stand down as an MP if the parliamentary probe finds that he misled parliamnent.
Some 67 per cent of voters say Mr Johnson shouldn’t wait to be punished and should quit his seat if he is found to have lied, according to the Savanta ComRes survey. Some 21 per cent believe he should stay on, regardless of the committee’s finding.
The ex-PM faces a possible by-election in his Uxbridge and Ruislip constituency if he is found to have broken rules – but he still hopes he can clear his name and stage an unlikely return to No 10.
Allies of Mr Johnson claim that he will provide a “detailed and compelling” account to the committee before his appearance, showing that he “did not knowingly mislead the House”.
Sir Bob Neill, the chair of the Commons Justice select committee, called on Boris to “tell the truth” in front of MPs. He told The Independent: “I would say just tell the truth. Just be straight and serious for once … But I would not hold my breath”.
Sir Bob described the hearing as an “irritation” – but hopes that “in the longer term might remind people as to how things have improved” under Rishi Sunak.
One former Tory minister said Mr Johnson should “fully cooperate and be helpful” to the committee if he wanted to retain any support from Tory MPs ahead of any punishment recommended by the cross-party group.
Another ex-minister said Mr Johnson’s tactics were clear – explaining that he had “tooled up” legally and would try to hide behind advice on parties taken from No 10 officials, while his allies continue to make “insinuations” about the committee being tied to the work of Ms Gray.
Lord Cruddas, the former Tory party treasurer who launched the Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO) after Mr Johnson was kicked out of No 10, has led claims the committee is a “stitch-up”.
Conservative Post, a website affiliated with CDO, has urged party members to email the four Tory MPs who sit on the committee and urge them to quit the “banana republic” inquiry.
The draft emails members are encouraged to send warn the MPs – Alberto Costa, Sir Bernard Jenkin, Andy Carter and Laura Farris – of “deep concern and disappointment over your participation in the Labour-led investigation”.
Commons leader Penny Mordaunt warned earlier this week that a “dim view” would be taken of any MP or peer who made attempts to pressure the privileges committee probe to halt its work.
But Johnson ally Lord Greenhalgh – deputy mayor when Mr Johnson was in London’s City Hall – backed the campaign which calls for the Tory MPs to pull out of the “kangaroo court”.
Asked if he believes the four Tories should withdraw, he said he was worried about a “McCarthyite approach”. He told Times Radio: “I’m hoping as a parliamentarian that there will be fairness around this, that is my fervent hope. But if not, then the thing should not go ahead.”
Mr Johnson and his allies claim that the committee’s interim report relies on evidence gathered by Ms Gray during her Partygate probe finished in May 2022.
But the eight-person committee, led by Labour veteran Harriet Harman, has made clear it has gathered evidence directly from witnesses, independent of Ms Gray’s report. And it is believed Labour did not approach Ms Gray about becoming Keir Starmer’s chief of staff until November.
If found to have lied to parliament, MPs would have to vote on the sanction. If a suspension of at least 10 days is imposed, Mr Johnson could face a recall petition from his constituents that could trigger a by-election.
Mr Sunak has made clear that he would not use the Tory whip to exert pressure on his colleagues ahead of any vote in the weeks ahead. The PM said earlier this week: “It’s not right for the government to get involved.”
Cabinet Office Oliver Dowden said he expected Mr Johnson to mount a “robust” defence on Wednesday – but made clear it would be for MPs to decide his fate. He told Sky News on Sunday that a free vote was “standard practice” on House matters.
Mr Johnson’s dossier overseen by his lawyer David Pannick KQ will point to a series of WhatsApp messages from senior civil servants and members of his No 10 team showing that he had relied upon their advice when he made his statements to parliament.
Mr Johnson will also publish messages which show that other senior figures in No 10 believed the gatherings were covered by the “workplace exemption” in the lockdown rules.
However, the committee has revealed MPs found the then-No 10 communications chief admitted there was a “great gaping hole” in Mr Johnson’s account, saying he was “not sure” the workplace exemption excuse worked.
The committee also found that Mr Johnson’s key claim – that all rules were followed – came from a special adviser and was not “a general assurance (that) no guidance or rules were broken”.
He will be able to bring and consult with Lord Pannick during Wednesday’s grilling – set to take place between 2pm and 6pm – but the lawyer will not be able to answer questions on the ex-PM’s behalf.
The Independent understands that Mr Johnson is now likely to be the only witness called for a public hearing, thought others could be called depending on the evidence provided by Mr Johnson.
A spokesman for Mr Johnson said: “The privileges committee will vindicate Boris Johnson’s position. The evidence will show that Boris Johnson did not knowlingly mislead parliament.”
Sunak supporters in the party fear some of the positive headlines which followed the Brexit deal with the EU and the Jeremy Hunt’s Budget will be undone by a return of the “psychodrama” brought by Mr Johnson’s hearing. One ex-minister said it would be a distracting “sideshow”.
Chris Hopkins, director Savanta said that Mr Johnson’s “interventions in UK politics are increasingly unpopular and potentially damaging for the government and Rishi Sunak”.
The pollster added: “The public are starting to see the fruition of pragmatic and sensible leadership, and the spectre of Johnson does little but undermine Sunak’s new approach.”
Former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng suggested the “hugely intelligent, sensitive, brilliant” Mr Johnson could still mount a political comeback and return to lead the party. He told GB News “he’s been written off so many times” but “he is someone who I would never rule out or count out”.
Savanta’s latest survey for The Independent also found that almost two-thirds of the British public (65 per cent) are against the idea of Stanley Johnson received a knighthood. Only 14 per cent in favour.
The ex-PM’s spokesperson has not denied Mr Johnson Snr. is on the ex-PM’s resignation honours list. The Savanta ComRes survey of 2,153 adults was carried out between 10 and 12 of March.