By Lord Jackson.

I suspect that many Conservative MPs will grasp, like drowning kittens, at the license proffered to them by Michael Gove yesterday, encouraging them to abstain on the key vote in the Commons on the Privileges Committee report today.

Gove himself will probably have been given a steer by Number Ten 10 to offer such consensual balm.

Many of them will be sick and tired of the process, the hyperbole and pompous self-reverential obsequies attached to the Committee’s deliberation and verdict – its pretensions as an ersatz court of law, the hysteria, hate, vitriol and venom directed at a man without whom would never have had the opportunity to serve in Parliament.

They will remember the words of George Orwell in “1984” as they consider their own actions and those of many of their colleagues but particularly, the media: “the horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in…”

“the horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in…”

They will shudder at the cathartic process of not just ending the erstwhile World King’s political career but reducing everything he touched to ashes the better for erasing him from memory. The maelstrom of Boris Derangement Syndrome will be difficult to fully expunge, save by an improbable Tory election landslide in 2024.

Politics is brutal and unsentimental, but they wouldn’t be human without a feeling of profound sadness and regret at the way the most successful political leader in 30 years has been eviscerated – and not merely by his own hand.

His Original Sin was as a heretic. The London Mayor with the pink Pride stetson outraged the liberal metropolitan elite by the apostasy of later heading up the Leave campaign and tearing down their most cherished shibboleth – that of European Union membership.  For that, no ducking stool or Salem witch trial was tortuous enough. All they needed was a quasi-judicial process and a weak, tired and enfeebled Conservative Parliamentary Party.

Screengrab image taken from Daily Mail – 5 July 2008

Many on the Eurosceptic Tory Right also resented his brilliance as a communicator in the Brexit wars and how his chutzpah demonstrated their own shortcomings over many years. 

Even friends bemoan the opportunities squandered by the epochal events of 2019 – recovering the party’s electoral standing from the nadir of the hapless Theresa May and nine per cent vote share in a national election to the best general election result since 1987.

A once in a generation realignment seems to have evaporated – and a Labour Party prostrated and irrelevant has another chance to govern.

Perhaps it was always impossible to square socially conservative communitarian voters in the north and midlands with the socially and economically liberal electorate in the Home Counties. Covid made it a Sysiphean undertaking.

Perhaps it was always impossible to square socially conservative communitarian voters in the north and midlands with the socially and economically liberal electorate in the Home Counties. Covid made it a Sysiphean undertaking.

Hence, no real reform of education or the health service or social care, or deregulation, plus higher taxes, a Woke agenda and the expansion of the Blob, capitulation on housing targets, Net Zero and legislation by anecdote and virtue signal. (Conversion Practices Bill anyone?)

“Sunak blocked me” isn’t a policy worth defending. Nor one that a Thatcher premiership would have tolerated.

The worst mistake, of course, was appointing Dominic Cummings as Chief of Staff. There’s a reason he was described by David Cameron as a ”career psychopath.” He was always going to blow up the whole Johnson project, and Johnson should have dispatched him into the think tank world and Bismarck memorabilia when Barnard Castle exploded, instead of using up precious capital on a man who repaid him by betrayal.

It wasn’t the only time that Johnson’s desire to be liked and a lack of intellectual self confidence prevented him from doing what was ruthless but necessary – ironically and perversely for one often described as selfish and monomaniacal.  In supporting Owen Paterson (undeservedly) and Chris Pincher (even less so), as a result of poor advice from the Whips’ Office, Johnson unknowingly lit he fuse on his immolation last week.

The worst mistake, of course, was appointing Dominic Cummings as Chief of Staff. There’s a reason he was described by David Cameron as a ”career psychopath.”

My Tory friends in the Commons will tell me, perhaps reasonably, that the caravan has moved on. We’re so over Johnson. Brexit’s done (not so), Jeremy Corbyn’s history. We’re stuck with Sunak and, although he has no mandate, he’s the best we’ve got.

Why then should MPs of all parties vote against the Privileges Committee report?

In this sorry saga, politics is everything, and to imagine that Johnson’s sham show trial is anything else is naive in the extreme. But let us judge it on its merits as a quasi-judicial forum.

The first reason is that once Parliament begins the process of “lawfare” – i.e: assuming the role and function of a court, to deal with people with which its bien pensant members disagree and, more to the point wish, to remove from the public square – it incurs further reputational damage.

As for the ludicrous notion of threatening MPs with draconian sanctions for defending themselves or their friends from such a process, that is the way of a Banana Republic. Will MPs be disbarred from the Commons for criticising, say, Transport or Defence Select Committee reports in future? 

As for the ludicrous notion of threatening MPs with draconian sanctions for defending themselves or their friends from such a process, that is the way of a Banana Republic.

Tony Blair’s statements in the run up to the Iraq war and Theresa May’s justification for the appalling Windrush scandal, to take just two examples, were not deemed worthy of such a forensic legal interrogation, in contrast to Boris Johnson’s one incidence of breaching lockdown regulations and his receipt of a Fixed Penalty Notice. But a precedent is now established, and it will come back to haunt Labour Ministers too.

Second, Parliament is assumed to be “the highest court in the land” on the assumption that it behaves like one, and dispenses justice in a way recognisable as fair, just, transparent and open to appeal.  It can’t disregard the basic tenets which have existed since Magna Carta.

How can you have a fair tribunal when secret witnesses are of course anonymous, legal advice is withheld during testimony, there is no right to cross examine witnesses and there is no right to appeal?  Surely a tribunal acting as a court must adhere to the standards inherent in and widely accepted in a judicial process?

Thirdly, as Bill Cash has persuasively argued, the rules established for dealing with alleged misleading statements by Ministers of the Crown in Parliament were laid down in a resolution and unanimously adopted in 1997, but were always predicated on the idea that the offence only occurred if it could be proved that the individual knowingly misled the House of Commons.

The Labour motion in April 2022 which began the process of de facto impeachment, omitted the word “knowingly” and the bar was lowered to achieve an easier “conviction” by use of the term “intention.” 

The Labour motion in April 2022 which began the process of de facto impeachment, omitted the word “knowingly” and the bar was lowered to achieve an easier “conviction” by use of the term “intention.” 

Nowhere in the more than a hundred pages of the largely circumstantial evidence prayed in aid by the Privileges Committee in their report, published last week, is any definitive and incontrovertible proof that Boris Johnson knowingly misled Parliament.

And given the widely different analyses and interpretations of the Covid regulations, as between say, Durham Constabulary and the Metropolitan Police and the lack of clarity in their enforcement even among specialist lawyers, how can we be sure of the efficacy of the advice and guidance Boris Johnson was given?

Many question the widely different analyses and interpretations of the Covid regulations, as between say, Durham Constabulary and the Metropolitan Police.

Indeed, the committee gave up investigating law, which is the mandate given it by Parliament and instead investigated Covid regulations and guidance. It pointedly eschewed the evidence presented by the Metropolitan Police, and proposed a much harsher legal test for what was illegal than either the Met or the Durham Police. It maintained that regulations weren’t followed (such as the two metres distance rules) even when they were and, even then, mitigations were available and properly used in some circumstances.

Fourth, the quasi-judicial process was unfair and unbalanced and lacked transparency.

The private contemporaneous discussions between the Chair of the Privileges Committee, Harriet Harman and the now discredited Sue Gray as well as allegations that a leading member of the Committee, Bernard Jenkin, himself breached Covid Regulations, knowingly and without subsequently declaring this fact, must give rise to at least an appearance or a reasonable suspicion of bias or partiality.

Furthermore, the pre-hearing media comments and prejudicial remarks by committee members regarding “partygate” and Johnson in particular, lead to the same concerns about fairness and propriety.

Finally, the punishment recommended for the offences alleged by the committee is grossly disproportionate and vindictive, and completely pointless. Even his harshest enemies would concede that Johnson is unique – and of course has now left Parliament, so why a punitive sentence except to pour encourager les autres? 

MPs of all parties might reflect on the Clinton impeachment of 1995. The Republicans ruthlessly pursued Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair but their zeal and overreach repelled voters and gave Clinton a platform for a comfortable re-election a year later. Lawfare looks mean spirited and spiteful.

Lawfare looks mean spirited and spiteful.

Parliament is in danger of diminishing and demeaning itself with its pursuit of Johnson, his Parliamentary pass and ex-Member privileges.

Johnson is unique: a man who achieved little in office, mostly due to events outside his control but, as a result of his management of the Covid pandemic, his foresight in arming the Ukrainians well before the Russian invasion and his historic role as the champion of Brexit, he is an historically consequential figure – which is why he is loved and hated like no other British Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher. 


Lord Jackson was MP for Peterborough from 2005-17 and was a Special Advisor in the Department for Exiting the European Union 2017-18. Follow Lord Jackson on Twitter here.

This article first appeared in Conservative Home on 19 June 2023.

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