I don't want to live in a country where some politicians get to disqualify others
Doesn’t this feel wrong? Seven MPs are sitting in judgment on an eighth. Some are allies of the accused. Some are his opponents. Some had already publicly condemned him before the hearings began. Yet this charade is given all the trappings of a legal process.
Even Boris Johnson’s keenest critics ought to find the faux-juridical nature of the event a bit rum. Do we really want ministers to be threatened by parliamentary committees because they are held to have said something “reckless”? Are we not in danger of replacing due process with open partisanship?
Let me state what ought to be a basic principle. Politicians should not get to decide on whether other politicians are eligible for office. This is Britain, for heaven's sake, not Russia. “Laws”, as FA Hayek put it, “must be general, equal and certain”. That principle does not cease to apply simply because you dislike the platinum-haired Targaryen.
How did we get here? Until the 1990s, the task of invigilating MPs rested squarely with the electorate. If voters disapproved of how their local representative had behaved, they could sack him or her without explanation.
Then came John Major and sleaze and the Nolan Report and the parliamentary expenses crisis and IPSA and the Standards Committee and the Privileges Committee. The status of MPs changed. Instead of being answerable solely to their constituents, MPs now effectively became public sector workers, subject to much the same HR malarkey as other bureaucrats.
Many MPs knew they were making a mistake. But, in the aftermath of the sleaze scandals, they wilted in the face of public anger. And so, fatalistically, they erected a series of essentially unaccountable bodies to rule over them, surrendering the sovereignty they professed to value.
Some Conservatives sought to tilt the balance back to the voters. A group of us co-authored a 2005 pamphlet called “Direct Democracy: An Agenda for a New Model Party”. Among other things, we proposed a recall mechanism whereby, if enough constituents demanded it, a sitting MP would be subjected to a by-election.
David Cameron liked our idea, and put it in his 2010 manifesto. But, when the moment came, MPs baulked at proper reform.
In 2014, they voted by 340 to 166 to reject a proposal removing any role for the privileges committee in the process. In other words, a proposal intended to make MPs more accountable to voters ended up making them more accountable to each other, and so worsening the original problem.
That loss of nerve led to the present travesty. And travesty really is the word. The hearings have a kind of cargo cult legality to them, with witnesses and evidence and barristers. Johnson’s learned friends, in a truly Dickensian touch, are called Pannick, Pobjoy and Vamos.
Yet the process would not stand up in any court in the land. For one thing, court officers are neutral. Judges who know the accused must recuse themselves. Jurors connected to the case are disqualified. Yet here, the MPs acting as prosecutors, judges and jurors, are partial. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way: MPs are meant to be partial. Politics is a partisan game. But it’s absurd to pretend that we are watching some kind of disinterested, forensic process.
Moreover, MPs are susceptible to public opinion. Again, that is no criticism. In a representative democracy, MPs are meant to listen to the public. But that otherwise laudable tendency makes their role here preposterous.
I sympathise with the seven, who cannot have imagined that they would find themselves in the eye of such a tempest. Every morning, when they switch on their phones, I expect they are assaulted with Twitter messages telling them that if they acquit the lying Johnson, they will show what corrupt, self-serving thieves they themselves are.
You might say that Twitter is not the real world. It was that demented hellsite that pushed some MPs into ousting Johnson in July, a decision that turned out to be rather less popular with real-world voters. But don’t underestimate what it is like to be the subject of a continuous Twitter storm, augmented by furious emails and other platforms. Social media work by tapping into your hormones, releasing oxytocin when you are engaging positively and inducing anxiety and depression when you’re being criticised. Politicians might have thicker hides than most, but they are not indifferent to praise or criticism.
My sense is that the MPs on the panel have decided that they cannot let the former PM off completely. Their calculation is – unsurprisingly for politicians – political. The country, they might feel, demands some kind of sacrifice.
The trouble is that, within the strict terms of their remit, there are no grounds on which to find Johnson guilty. This is not an enquiry into the lockdown, or into the parties that officials and civil servants attended during the lockdown. It is narrowly and specifically about whether the former PM lied to Parliament. And, on the evidence the committee has itself heard, he didn’t.
Let us recall what it was that the Blond Beast said at the Despatch Box. “I have been repeatedly assured… that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken”. Well, we can see from the hearings that he plainly was so assured. One of the briefings he was given stated in terms that “No 10 has always followed all Covid rules,” a view reiterated by a number of the Downing Street staffers whom the committee interrogated.
Indeed, Johnson is shown to have messaged officials asking them to “get the truth about this party out there”. Does that sound like a man who thinks he has something to hide? On the one occasion that he was found to have infracted the rules – the break to mark his birthday between meetings in the Cabinet room – the Downing Street photographer recorded the event and it was briefed to a newspaper (where, incidentally, it caused no outrage at all). Again, does this strike you as a cover up?
It was always obvious that Johnson was giving MPs the facts as he understood them at the time. Remember that, when he made those statements at the Despatch Box, he knew that a vengeful former adviser was leaking against him. He must have known, in other words, that the photographs would come out. But he plainly did not regard a pause in the office among keyworkers as a transgression – and neither (unsurprisingly, what with all the TikTok memes of dancing nurses at that time) did anyone else.
Sure enough, the Privileges Committee has unearthed no evidence of a deliberate lie, and a great deal of evidence to the effect that the PM was indeed advised as he claimed. They cannot find him at fault on the original charge. But it looks as though, for reasons of state, they have settled on a secondary charge – that of recklessness – so as to get him on something.
Now you might feel that, even if Johnson does not get what he deserves in a legal sense, he will get it in a moral sense. Most people’s definition of “immoral” overlaps considerably with their definition of “holds views of which I disapprove”, and there are many reasons to disapprove of Johnson.
You might blame him for locking down too late or, conversely, for locking down at all. You might resent his recklessness with public money; I certainly do. You might not have forgiven him for Brexit. You might feel that, instead of issuing authoritarian laws, he should have set out general guidelines and asked people to use their nous. You might find a pleasing karma in the fact that he has been skewered by his own pettifogging and autocratic regulations.
None of this, though, is grounds for suspending him – an action which, depending on the length of his suspension, could see him ousted from Parliament. One of the things that elevates British politics is that we don’t exile or imprison defeated politicians, or bar them from office on technicalities.
This restraint is more unusual than you might think. In recent days, India and Pakistan have found notional legal grounds on which to prevent their opposition leaders, respectively Rahul Gandhi and Imran Khan, from contesting elections.
If we take the same path, it will necessarily lead to retaliatory investigations, lawfare and partisan rulings. Is that really where we want to go?