Once Sue Gray shares her report on Downing Street’s parties, Boris Johnson has promised that he will be held to account by MPs. But while the prime minister can be called to the House to explain his actions, and his performance will shape political opinions, MPs cannot impose any real consequences on him short of removing the entire government.
It remains unclear what evidence Parliament will have access to when questioning the prime minister. Ministers have repeatedly said that the ‘findings’ of the Gray inquiry will be made public but this is not a commitment to publish her full report. There are precedents each way – some internal standards inquiry reports have been published in full but with others only a summary of findings has been made public. The lack of clarity on this point from the government may be deliberate until the prime minister has had a chance to actually read the report and consider the impact of its release.
Timing of publication of Gray’s findings will also be up to the prime minister. Whether parliament will be sitting at the time will be a consideration as it will change the dynamic of how it is discussed. Even if the full report is published, it is possible that it will be written in such neutral and carefully chosen language that Johnson’s supporters and his detractors can cite it equally in support of their own case.
Most likely once the findings are published, Johnson will make a statement to the House of Commons and then answer questions. Subject to the discretion of the Speaker, questions following a statement are normally limited to one hour although Sir Lindsay Hoyle may well allow longer if there are numerous MPs who want a chance to have their say.
During oral questions following a statement, MPs can only ask one question at a time, which limits the extent to which they can test the prime minister’s arguments. It is only if Boris Johnson remains prime minister long enough to put in another appearance before the Liaison Committee – the only committee that can question a prime minister, normally three times a year – that backbenchers will get the chance to pursue more sustained lines of questioning about his actions. In such circumstances the heat would likely have gone out of the political debate on these questions.
One alternative which would allow a fuller discussion of Gray’s findings in the short term is for MPs to choose to have a debate on the Gray report. If the opposition parties (Labour or SNP) have one of their allocated days in the right time frame (and their scheduling is up to the government) they could choose to hold an opposition day debate on the Gray report and its implications. A backbench debate is another option in theory although the committee which selects the topics for these tends to look for topics where there is cross-party support for a debate to occur – which is unlikely to be the case here. A further possibility is for an MP to apply to the Speaker for an Emergency Debate, which must be on a specific and important matter which warrants urgent attention. Hoyle would only grant this if he were satisfied that the House had not had sufficient opportunity to discuss the Gray findings following a prime ministerial statement. But the prime minister could choose whether to turn up to respond to such a debate in person.
A further option would be for MPs to trigger ‘contempt’ proceedings, which could lead to Johnson being found ‘in contempt of parliament’ for what he has said to the House. In practice, however, a contempt motion would be unlikely to pass given the Conservative’s majority, and even if it did it would have only a symbolic effect – as Theresa May found during the Brexit process when her entire government was found in contempt of the Commons for refusing to release legal advice.
All these options presuppose that political events – including the 1922 committee’s process for triggering a vote of confidence in the prime minister among his colleagues in the parliamentary party (which would be triggered by 54 letters written to the chairman) – do not overtake events in parliament.
A final – more radical – alternative is that Keir Starmer could himself choose to trigger a vote of no confidence in the prime minister. As the Fixed Term Parliaments Act has not yet been repealed (although a bill is making its way through parliament to do so), the wording of the motion would have to be as specified in the act to actually trigger its provisions (a change of government or election). Starmer might choose different wording if he wanted simply to test the mood of the House. But the politics makes this course of action extremely unlikely – nothing would be more calculated to rally Boris Johnson’s troops behind him than the official opposition attempting to bring down the Conservative government.
Ultimately, although in theory the prime minister is accountable to the House of Commons, in practice – when he commands a majority – the parliamentary tools available to MPs are weak in terms of generating any formal consequences. However, the political consequences that play out in parliament – as illustrated by the defection of Christian Wakeford to the Labour party and David Davis MP’s intervention at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday – can be highly significant, as can the prime minister’s performance in the House. While the opposition may face Boris Johnson across the Commons chamber, it is his enemies in the benches behind who wield the real power.