Sunak will allow free vote on Boris Johnson sanctions if partygate hearing finds against him

Boris and Rishi - Leon Neal
Boris and Rishi - Leon Neal

Rishi Sunak is set to allow MPs to vote for sanctions against Boris Johnson if the privileges committee finds against him, a member of his Cabinet has confirmed.

Mr Johnson will give evidence to the seven-strong group of MPs on Wednesday afternoon as he is grilled over claims he knowingly and deliberately misled Parliament about lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street.

The verdict of the privileges committee, which will have to be approved by a vote of MPs, could see the former prime minister suspended from the Commons if he was ruled against.

Mr Dowden, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, pointed to the “well-established principle” that governments allow their backbenchers a free vote on such matters.

“I’m sure that first of all I should say this is a matter for the House authorities and for the relevant committee, and it’s not really for ministers to give running commentaries on these things,” he told Sky’s Sophy Ridge.

“But I’m sure Boris Johnson will give a robust defence of himself and then it will be for the committee to determine the outcome of it.”

Pressed on whether Mr Sunak would offer Tory MPs a free vote, he replied: “Well, the standard practice on what we call House matters – so matters that are being led by the House of Commons that relate to these kinds of things – it is standard practice not to whip the vote.

“I’m not sure final decisions have been made but that is the precedent that you would expect to follow… It’s a fairly well-established principle that we don’t interfere in House business.”

It comes as Mr Johnson prepares to unveil “bombshell” evidence that he believes will exonerate him over the partygate scandal.

His friends refer to his planned explanation as a “bombshell defence dossier”, which it is understood will include messages from Mr Johnson’s aides advising him no Covid rules had been broken in No 10.

Mr Johnson continues to deny any deliberate wrongdoing and his political allies on the Tory benches have expressed concerns the privileges committee inquiry will amount to a “stitch-up”.

Members of the committee, which is cross party but has a Conservative majority, have argued he should have known some of the events he attended broke lockdown guidance.

In a report published at the start of this month, they said there was evidence he misled Parliament after they found a WhatsApp exchange which showed his top press aide struggling to issue a denial.

However, Mr Johnson insisted he was “vindicated” by the report and that it had failed to prove he knowingly or recklessly misled MPs in his denials over partygate.

Mr Sunak was reported by the Sunday Times to have decided not to whip his backbenchers in the hope of avoiding a repeat of the Owen Paterson affair.

The government broke with precedent in November 2021 by issuing a three-line whip for Tory MPs to vote to delay a decision on Mr Paterson’s suspension from the House.

However, the ensuing backlash engulfed the government in a sleaze row that soon triggered an about-turn and led to the end of Mr Paterson’s time in Parliament.