Keir Starmer accuses Boris Johnson of ‘intimidating’ MPs probing Partygate scandal
Keir Starmer has accused Boris Johnson of trying to “intimidate” MPs investigating him over the Partygate scandal.
The Labour leader has given his full backing to an attack on Mr Johnson’s response to the privileges committee inquiry by shadow minister Thangam Debbonaire.
The shadow Commons leader claimed the former Tory prime minister has shown “utter disdain for standards in public life” by trying to “discredit” the Commons Committee investigating him.
“It’s vital that this well-respected committee, a majority of whom are Tory MPs, can carry out their evidence session without intimidation,” Ms Debbonaire told The Independent.
Johnson allies have attempted to undermine the inquiry, calling it a “McCarthyite witchhunt” and have put pressure on four Tory MPs on the committee to quit.
A senior Tory figure warned Johnson loyalists that such pressure “will be looked on very badly” by MPs and peers. “People look at it as anti-democratic – if they push any further even sympathetic people will be offended,” they told The Independent.
Mr Johnson and his allies claim that the committee’s interim report relies on evidence gathered by senior civil servant Sue 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. It is believed Labour did not approach Ms Gray about becoming Keir Starmer’s chief of staff until November 2022.
Sir Bob Neill, chair of the 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”.
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.
As Mr Johnson prepared to hand over a 50-page dossier to counter the privileges committee’s initial report which found rule breaches would have been “obvious” to him.
But the former PM is set to argue in his dossier that the committee is both “unlawful” and politically biased – pointing to Ms Harman’s previous tweets suggesting the ex-PM “knowingly lied”.
Mr Johnson’s legal team will argue that if the committee’s findings were subjected to a judicial review they would be found to be “unlawful”, according to The Times. But the cross-party inquiry committee is protected by parliamentary privilege, so cannot be taken to court.
Mr Johnson’s dossier is expected to include a message from his then-communications director Jack Doyle offering him a “line to take” on gatherings ahead of telling MPs no guidance or rules had been broken.
On Monday Lord Peter Cruddas – a senior Johnson ally – called on Rishi Sunak to “intervene” to stop the privileges committee “until the Sue Gray story around her report is cleared up”.
Whitehall sources told the Mail that Ms Gray was still advising the government on the privileges committee inquiry in November. But No 10 has suggested Johnson loyalists shouldn’t put undue pressure on the cross-party committee.
Mr Sunak’s official spokesman said: “We think this is a committee that’s carrying out a function asked to by parliament, it’s a parliamentary matter, and the Leader of the House set out how we would want parliamentarians to engage with it.”
Commons leader Penny Mordaunt had told MPs that “a very dim view will be taken” about anyone who tries to prevent the work of the investigation into whether Mr Johnson lied to parliament.
Conservative Post – website affiliated with Lord Cruddas’ Conservative Democratic Organisation (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.
Johnson ally Conor Burns, former Northern Ireland secretary, questioned Ms Harman’s impartiality – pointing to her tweets suggesting the ex-PM “knowingly lied”.
He had told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour: “It seems to me the person who is chairing this committee has predetermined it, and that causes me a degree of anxiety for parliament’s reputation in handling this with integrity.”
Former Tory attorney general Dominic Grieve said Mr Johnson has “a lot of explaining to do” when he faces MPs, adding that the former PM has a “serial reputation for telling untruths whenever it suits him”.
Mr Grieve told Sky News: “He attended some of the gatherings which were parties, and yet he said that there weren’t any gatherings. And it’s a bit difficult therefore to understand how he didn’t know that there had been parties going on at No 10.”
“So Mr Johnson’s got a lot of explaining to do, and of course that is against the background of somebody who has a serial reputation for telling untruths whenever it suits him.”
Mr Grieve said some Tories are “still delusional” about Mr Johnson. Put to him that the ex-PM is popular within the party, he told Sky News: “I’m afraid that just shows that elements of the Conservative Party are still delusional about Mr Johnson.”
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.
Rishi 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.
Former chancellor Tory George Osborne said on Channel 4’s The Andrew Neil Show last night that it was “not clear” the PM would campaign for Mr Johnson if he faces a by-election.