Boris Johnson to accuse privileges committee of ‘moving the goalposts’

·6-min read
Boris Johnson is said to be confident of his defence as he prepares to face the privileges committee - Jonathan Brady/PA
Boris Johnson is said to be confident of his defence as he prepares to face the privileges committee - Jonathan Brady/PA

Boris Johnson’s lawyers are to accuse MPs of “moving the goalposts” in a bid to find him guilty over partygate, as his allies insist he is confident of victory.

In a submission consisting of dozens of pages to be published on Monday, the lawyers will outline evidence of assurances given to the former prime minister that no lockdown rules had been broken.

Mr Johnson’s lawyers are set to argue that the House of Commons privileges committee has overturned decades of tradition by changing the definition of misleading Parliament – and will accuse Harriet Harman, its chairman, of having prejudiced the outcome of the inquiry.

Since 1963, MPs have been investigated over whether they “deliberately” misled Parliament. Yet last year, the committee decided they did not need to prove intent, just that he had “recklessly” misled the House – something that is easier to prove.

Mr Johnson’s team will argue that the definition was changed because the committee failed to find any compelling evidence.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, one of Mr Johnson’s key allies, castigated the inquiry, saying it made a “kangaroo court look respectable”.

The former prime minister’s allies suggested its findings would be tainted because Sue Gray, the senior civil servant who wrote the original report into the parties held at Number 10 during lockdown, is now set to work for Labour.

On Sunday, it emerged that Ms Gray had been in talks with Sir Keir Starmer, the opposition leader, about her new job since at least November.

Mr Rees-Mogg, who was leader of the House of Commons under Mr Johnson, said: “The privileges committee is proposing to rely on evidence gathered by someone who went on to be Keir Starmer’s chief of staff.

“It is chaired by a Labour MP who has already said she thinks Boris is guilty, even before any of the evidence was examined. If this was the other way around, Labour MPs would rightly be calling ‘foul’ and calling this a stitch-up.”

A source close to Mr Johnson’s defence team said the evidence was “totally in his favour” and that the argument he never misled parliament would be “shown to be right”.

‘No evidence that Boris acted wrongly’

“The committee will find Boris did not mislead Parliament,” said the source. “It has to be based on the evidence which is totally in his favour.

“He has always said he didn’t mislead Parliament and now he will be shown to be right. He is in good spirits and he has a great defence. He is up for it and confident.”

The source added: “The lawyers will say a lot about how unfair the process has been.

“We think the committee moved the goalposts on the definition of contempt, by bringing in a new idea of recklessly misleading Parliament rather than deliberately misleading Parliament.

“We think there is absolutely no precedent for that. We think they have changed the definition because they discovered there was no evidence that Boris acted wrongly in any way.”

The privileges committee said at the time that: “Intention is not necessary for contempt to be committed.”

The former prime minister will submit the written dossier of evidence to MPs, which runs to dozens of pages, ahead of a public hearing on Wednesday.

It will point to a series of previously undisclosed WhatsApp messages showing he had relied upon others’ advice when he made his statements to Parliament.

He is expected to publish messages that show other senior figures in Downing Street believed the gatherings were covered by the “workplace exemption” in the lockdown rules.

“People will be surprised by the quantity and quality of the evidence in his favour,” said a source close to the legal defence.

Mr Johnson’s team will also argue that the inquiry has lasted far too long, in part because the MPs had sought evidence that later proved not to be there.

Cabinet ministers rallied around Mr Johnson at the weekend. Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, declared that she is an “admirer”.

Asked if she would vote to suspend Mr Johnson if the committee recommended to sanction him, she said: “I’m going to allow that process to conclude before I take a view.”

Asked if she agreed with one ally of Mr Johnson who said the inquiry was a “witch-hunt”, she said: “Boris Johnson was a really important leader for our country. He got Brexit done. He delivered the Covid vaccine and he led the UK support for Ukraine and for all of those things, I’ll be an admirer of his.”

Oliver Dowden, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, confirmed Conservative MPs would be given a free vote on any punishment if he is found guilty by the committee.

Speaking to Camilla Tominey, The Telegraph’s associate editor, on her GB News political programme, he said: “Having worked with Boris for many years in different capacities, I’m quite sure that he will put forward a very robust defence of his case when he appears before the committee on Wednesday.

“First of all it will be for the committee to make a determination, and if that necessitates it going to the floor of the House, it will be up to each individual MP to make up their mind.”

Nadine Dorries, who was culture secretary under Mr Johnson, said there was no indication the former prime minister believed he had broken the rules.

“He was fined for being at his desk when people he worked with all day walked in to wish him happy birthday,” she tweeted. “He then sat down with some of the same people for a meeting.

“The so-called birthday ‘party’ consisted of people he spent all day with walking into his office to wish him happy birthday. The details of this event were also officially briefed out to The Times for reporting.

“That’s not the behaviour of people who for one second thought they were breaking any rules.”

Lord Greenhalgh, another supporter of the former premier, said the four Tory members on the privileges committee should consider withdrawing – meaning the inquiry could not go ahead.

“I’m hoping as a parliamentarian that there will be fairness around this,” he said. “That is my fervent hope. If not, then the thing should not go ahead.”

One Tory MP said: “I share the suspicions of many that this is a kangaroo court, a show trial. A whole lot of people who want to for political reasons impeach a former prime minister – I’m concerned about it.

“It sounds as though he’s got quite a lot of evidence there that this was a briefing he had from officials, and he took the officials’ line. And who’s going to say that that was deliberately reckless?”

Another MP said: “Given that he will have been advised by civil servants, and it’s mainly the civil servants who got the fixed-penalty notices from the Met Police, it’s quite clear that there was a difference in perception between the Civil Service who were advising the prime minister and the Metropolitan Police.”

A spokesman for Mr Johnson said: “The privileges committee will vindicate Boris Johnson’s position.

“The evidence will show that Boris Johnson did not knowingly mislead Parliament.”