On 21 April 2022, the House of Commons passed a motion tabled by the leader of the Labour Party, calling for the then prime minister, Boris Johnson, to be investigated by the Commons Privileges Committee for having potentially misled parliament over ‘partygate’ allegations.
The committee has since been conducting that investigation. On 9 June 2023, after receiving a draft of the committee's final report, Boris Johnson announced his resignation as an MP. The committee's final report, setting out its conclusions and recommendations, was published on 15 June 2023.
This explainer sets out the background to and process of the committee's investigation.
What was Boris Johnson investigated for?
The Privileges Committee investigated whether Boris Johnson may have misled parliament in statements that he made in the Commons about alleged breaches of lockdown rules in Downing Street and, if so, whether this may have constituted a contempt of parliament.
According to the specific terms of the motion passed by the Commons authorising the committee’s inquiry, the committee investigated whether:
The Commons was misled.
If the Commons was misled, whether that constituted a contempt of parliament (in other words, whether the functioning of the Commons was impeded by this).
If the Commons was misled, how serious was the potential contempt.
In an interim report published by the Privileges Committee in March 2023, setting out the issues it wished to raise with Johnson, the committee further stated that it was investigating whether, if a statement made by Johnson to the Commons is found to have been misleading, it was “inadvertent, reckless, or intentional.” This may include examining “how quickly and comprehensively any misleading statement to the House was corrected.”
What does the committee’s final report say?
The 108-page final report of the Privileges Committee found that Boris Johnson committed “repeated contempts of parliament”. These include misleading the Commons, as set out below:
“misled the House:
- when he said that guidance was followed completely in No. 10, that the Rules and Guidance were followed at all times, that events in No. 10 were within the rules and guidance, and that the rules and guidance had been followed at all times when he was present at gatherings
- when he failed to tell the House about his own knowledge of the gatherings where rules or guidance had been broken
- when he said that he relied on repeated assurances that the rules had not been broken. The assurances he received were not accurately represented by him to the House, nor were they appropriate to be cited to the House as an authoritative indication of No. 10’s compliance with Covid restrictions
- when he gave the impression that there needed to be an investigation by Sue Gray before he could answer questions when he had personal knowledge that he did not reveal.
- when he purported to correct the record but instead continued to mislead the House and, by his continuing denials, this committee;
- was deliberately disingenuous when he tried to reinterpret his statements to the House to avoid their plain meaning and reframe the clear impression that he intended to give, namely i) when he advanced unsustainable interpretations of the rules and guidance to advance the argument that the lack of social distancing at gatherings was permissible within the exceptions which allowed for gatherings, and ii) when he advanced legally impermissible reasons to justify the gatherings.
The report also concludes that Johnson committed further contempts of parliament, in that he “breached the confidence” of the committee by discussing its draft findings prior to their publication; “impugned the committee and thereby the undermin[ed] the denmocratic process of the House”; and was “complicit in the campaign of abuse and intimidation of the Committee.”
The committee’s report stated that, had Boris Johnson still been an MP, they would have recommended that he be suspended from the House of Commons for 90 days. Had this sanction been agreed by the Commons, it would have triggered a recall petition in Boris Johnson’s constituency.
In light of the fact that Boris Johnson has already resigned as an MP, the committee recommends that he not be granted a parliamentary pass – something to which former MPs are usually entitled and which gives access to the parliamentary estate.
Who was the investigation conducted by?
The Commons Privileges Committee conducted the investigation. This is a cross-party committee tasked with the investigation of potential contempts of parliament and breaches of privilege.
This means that the investigation is a parliamentary one operating according to the rules and conventions of the UK Parliament. It is separate from the legal process, because only parliamentarians can make decisions about issues of parliamentary privilege.
The Privileges Committee has seven members (including the chair). Conservative MPs are in a majority on the committee, with four MPs. There are two Labour MPs (one of whom currently chairs the committee), and one SNP MP. The balance of the committee reflects the broader balance of parties in the House of Commons as a whole.
The Privileges Committee is separate from the Standards Committee. From 1995, when the Commons Standards system was established, there was a single Standards and Privileges Committee, but the two were split in January 2013 to allow non-MP members, known as lay members, to be appointed to the Standards Committee. The two committees now have the same chair and MP membership but different remits: Privileges deals with issues of privilege (the special protections afforded to the House of Commons to enable it to do its job) and looks into allegations these privileges have been impeded – offences known as contempts of parliament. The Standards Committee deals with the MPs’ code of conduct – adjudicating and determining sanctions for any cases of misconduct referred to it by the independent parliamentary commissioner for standards – and oversees the Commons standards system.
Who chairs the Privileges Committee, and why did this change?
The committee has been chaired by Harriet Harman since summer 2022. The Standing Orders – the Commons’ rules – set out that the Standards Committee must be chaired by an MP from the official opposition, and ever since the Standards and Privileges Committee were separated, they have had the same chair and MP membership, with the practical effect that the Privileges Committee is also therefore chaired by an opposition MP. This potentially helps counterbalance any government majority on the committee, but as chairs do not vote in committees (except in the event of a tie), the majority can still exert considerable influence in the committee’s work.
Previously, the Privileges and Standards Committees were chaired by the Labour MP Sir Chris Bryant. However, shortly before the Commons agreed in April 2022 to refer Johnson to the Privileges Committee for investigation, Bryant wrote a letter to MPs informing them that he would recuse himself from any such investigation. This is because of Conservative concerns about previous statements he had made in the media about the matter, and Bryant’s desire that “the House be seen to proceed fairly without any imputation of unfairness and that the whole House have confidence in the Committee of Privileges’ proceedings.”
Initially the Privileges Committee decided that in the absence of the chair, Sir Bernard Jenkin – another MP on the committee – would act as chair.
Subsequently, a motion to replace Bryant on the committee with another Labour MP – Harriet Harman – was tabled by the government and approved by the Commons as a whole in June 2022, and subsequently it was announced that the other members of the Privileges Committee had unanimously elected Harman as its chair.
How did the investigation unfold?
The committee did not substantively begin its investigation until after the Metropolitan Police concluded its investigation into alleged parties in Downing Street, and after the final publication of the Gray Report. This meant that the committee did not begin its work until 29 June 2022.
The committee began to invite evidence in the summer of 2022, and in March 2023 published an interim report laying out the next steps in its inquiry and setting out the “principal issues” it wishes to raise with Johnson.
In late March 2023, Boris Johnson gave evidence to the committee in a public session. Ahead of this, Johnson and his legal team had provided a written response to the issues and evidence raised in the committee's interim report. His submission was published by the committee.
On 9 June 2023, Boris Johnson announced his resignation as an MP. This followed his receipt of a draft copy of the committee's final report. The committee published its final report on 15 June.
What will happen next?
Following publication of the committee’s final report, the leader of the House, Penny Mordaunt, has stated that the committee’s findings will be subject to a debate and vote in the House of Commons on 19 June 2023. This will allow MPs to express their view on the committee’s findings, though the text of the specific motion that the government will table has not yet been published.
Separately, the Privileges Committee has stated that it plans to produce a special committee report on the issues raised by what it called “a sustained attempt, seemingly co-ordinated, to undermine the Committee’s credibility and, more worryingly, that of those Members serving on it.” The timetable for this is not yet clear.
What was the Privileges Committee able to do as part of its investigation and what evidence did it draw on?
Like all select committees, the Privileges Committee is able to call for “persons, papers and records” relevant to an inquiry. In July 2022, it wrote to the government to request materials relevant to the committee’s inquiry. In August 2022, the government responded to this request by disclosing, in the words of the committee, “documents which were so heavily redacted as to render them devoid of any evidential value.” The committee had further engagement with the government over this, and in November 2022 all relevant material was provided on an unredacted basis. Following this, in January 2023 the committee contacted 23 witnesses to request they provide written evidence, alongside a “statement of truth”– something equivalent to making an oral statement under oath. According to the committee in March 2023, these statements have now been received and considered.
The committee also requested evidence from Johnson. In July 2022 it wrote to him requesting relevant materials, and invited him to provide an initial written submission to the committee, including details of witnesses he felt could give evidence to the committee. In August 2022, Johnson informed the committee that he had no relevant material in his possession related to their request for evidence. In January 2023, Johnson disclosed 46 WhatsApp messages to the committee in response to “a direct and specific request.”
The Privileges Committee, unlike many other select committees, also has the power to compel attendance of an MP before it. Boris Johnson gave oral evidence, in public, to the committee on 23 March 2023.
While some of the evidence received by the committee stems from the evidence gathered by civil servant Sue Gray during her investigation into partygate, it has also took evidence beyond this. The committee’s final report sets out the evidence that it received as part of its inquiry.
The committee also appointed an expert adviser for the inquiry: Sir Ernest Ryder, a former Appeal Court judge.