Democracy or Privilege?
No unprejudiced observer would believe the Privileges Committee Report was anything other than an attempt to end Boris Johnson’s political career. Here Sheila Lawlor, Politeia’s founder and Research Director, explains how the most sucessful Prime Ministers have rarely been forgiven.
A second blog follows below with an extract from his House of Commons speech in which Sir Jacob Rees Mogg MP dissects the report itself
This week’s Report by the Parliamentary Committee of Privileges on Boris Johnson changed few minds and moved fewer hearts. People, good people, have been ‘for’ or ‘against’ him since he first sprang to prominence as a journalist. Some may have changed their view during his decades of his political life. But few will have done so as a result of the report. Awaited for over a year the report has been kept vividly in the news by leaks and photos as the media capitalised on the sad stories of families bereft during covid unable to be with their dying, juxtaposed with reports of parties for officials at No 10 during the pandemic. The nub of the matter was not whether these ‘gatherings’ took place, but what the prime minister told parliament about them. Even that question was a matter of contention. Did he mislead parliament or did he deliberately, ie ‘knowingly’ do so?.
The report was therefore about a figure loathed and loved, feared as a political opponent by the opposition, one who divided his own side but who gave the Tories their largest majority since Margaret Thatcher. That he did so on the cause of Brexit has not been forgiven. To this day that cause is as despised and rejected by the intelligentsia and the left as much as the man who won it. Labour’s Harriet Harman chairing the Committee therefore faced a tough call, even tougher that when she saw off the ministerial career of Frank Field many years ago when he was appointed to be Minister of State at the Department of Work and Pensions when she was Secretary of State.
She claimed ‘the evidence’ showed the former PM ‘deliberately misled the House…on numerous occasions’, that this was ‘not a technicality but … our democracy is based on people electing us to scrutinise the government … …to hold the government to account’ which they could not do if ministers were ‘not truthful.’ She added that they ‘scrupulously [stuck]to the rules and processes laid down by this house … and following the precedents of this house’, the report adding that the committee had left party interests ‘at the door’.
Following precedent and leaving their parties outside the door does not mean the rivalries, jealousies, resentments and ‘causes’ with which politics have, and always will be, riddled, were also left outside.
Recent British political history has been about great men, and (when Thatcher came along), one great woman, getting their own way on matters at the heart of this nation’s affairs – by getting the better of other politicians on their own and the other side. Over time those they defeat fill the benches with long memories, as rivalries and failed ambition fester. Those who do well for their party and the country are rarely forgive. Peel for free trade and cheap bread, Thatcher for restoring the free economy with free markets, Blair to bring Labour to victory to show what the party could do, unencumbered by the enslavement to Clause IV. Each was driven from office – Blair going before he was pushed – each hated as much by its own side.
In the Westminster jungle, life is characterised by the snakes’ venom, the hyena’s cry and the vultures circling. Despite the high ambitions, parliament’s role in denying democracy has its own history, the most recent being the chaotic scenes to which it reduced Britain’s democracy in seeking to ignore and overturn the democratic decision of voters 2016 to leave the EU, continuing even after Johnson became leader, as many opposed to Brexit sought to bind him in its fetters to do its and the EU’s bidding, not that of the people. The chaos did not end until Johnson broke the chains to call the 2019 election and use his victory the following years to restore the freedom for people in this country to determine the laws under which they are governed.
Sheila Lawlor is the founder and Research Director of Politeia. Her background is as an historian of 20th century British political history, having started working life in Cambridge as a research fellow at Sidney Sussex College and Churchill College. Her academic publications include Churchill and the Politics of War 1940-41, and she is now finishing a book on British Politics and Social Policy in the 1940s (working title). At Politeia she focuses on the constitutional, economic and social programme.
A Problematic Report
This week, when the House of Commons debated the Privileges’ Committee Report on Boris Johnson, Sir Jacob Rees Mogg MP explained that the Report itself was problematic. Not only does it ignore legal precedent, impute malfeasance without proof, and fail to respect the right to free speech. But it also makes assertions without proof and fails the famous Hoffman test on perceived bias.
“ … Paragraph 48 [of the Report] … makes reference to the fixed penalty notice received by Mr Johnson for the birthday party. It seems to think that the fixed penalty notice is, in fact, an admission of guilt. But in R v. Hamer, Lord Chief Justice Thomas said:
It is quite clear that the issue of a notice is not a conviction … [A] person accepting such a notice would reasonably be led to believe, that he was not admitting any offence, not admitting any criminality, and would not have any stain imputed to his character.
Yet this report, against what a Lord Chief Justice says and against what is a principle of our criminal law, decides to impute a stain upon his character. It seems to me that this is quite clearly a deliberate attempt to take the most unfavourable interpretation of Mr Johnson’s activities, but this is not the only contentious paragraph.
Let us go to paragraph 83, which decides, as if it were an Elon Musk chip, to insert itself in the brain of Mr Johnson to work out what he must have thought at a particular moment. … It says: ‘we conclude that Mr Johnson is unlikely to have been unaware.’
That is an obscure use of a double negative to try to impute malfeasance to somebody where the Committee cannot prove it. The Committee assumes something and imputes something because it wants to come to a particular conclusion …
[W]e come to the 90-day sanction. It is a vindictive sanction, it seems to me, that the Committee cannot implement because Mr Johnson has left Parliament, so the Committee goes from the vindictive to the ridiculous by not allowing him a parliamentary pass. Of all the trivial sanctions that could be imposed, that seems to be the most miserable. But the Committee emphasises in paragraph 229 that this sanction has been made more savage, more brutal and more vindictive because Mr Johnson impugned the Committee and undermined the democratic process.
On what basis? Is it thought that this House, when it comes to a conclusion, must be obeyed? Is it the case that we must not criticise the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 because it was passed by this great and noble House, or are we, in fact, allowed to criticise, as a fundamental of free speech, that which happens to us, that which is reported about us and that which is said of us? When a person is in court, they are allowed to say that the court has made a mistake. The protections of the junior courts, in which juries sit, are rightly very strict, but we can still say that the court has got it wrong. Indeed, we are allowed to say a court has got it so wrong that we may go to appeal. We do not have to kowtow but, for some reason, the Privileges Committee thinks it is in communist China and that we must kowtow.
The report goes on to say that Mr Johnson was ‘complicit in the campaign of abuse and attempted intimidation of the Committee’ without a single, solitary shred of evidence. It is pure assertion.
Paragraph 9 of the report says: ‘’We leave our party interests at the door of the committee room.’ That is all very good, and it is to be encouraged, but it does not meet the Hoffmann test, which is important because the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords, like the Privileges Committee, was a Committee of Parliament following a judicial or, in this case, quasi-judicial process. I quote from its judgment:
The contention is that there was a real danger or reasonable apprehension or suspicion that Lord Hoffmann might have been biased, that is to say, it is alleged that there is an appearance of bias not actual bias.
The fundamental principle is that a man may not be a judge in his own cause.
The House has historically tried to call people to the Bar—indeed, in past times it even imprisoned people—and it made the House look ridiculous. When John Junor was called to that Bar of the House because he had said in the Sunday Express that Members were fiddling their petrol coupons, it was not he who looked ridiculous but the House. We must defend the right of freedom of speech. Frankly, if politicians cannot cope with criticism, one wonders what on earth they are doing with a political career.
I have one final question [about the comment in the Report] that Sue Gray’s report was not important in this case. When the witnesses have come from Sue Gray’s report, it is odd then to say that her report was not important. It might also be interesting to know, in the interests of … transparency, quite how many communications, private and public, the Chairman of the Committee had with Sue Gray.
* This is a shortened extract from Jacob Rees Mogg’s speech to the House of Commons on 19 June 2023. We are grateful to the parliamentary authorities and editors of Hansard for facilitating access to this speech and to Jacob Rees Mogg for permitting us to circulate his analysis to our readers.
For the full text- click here