In the absence of an obvious successor to Boris Johnson, and with the ready excuse of continuity of leadership during an international crisis to proffer, Conservative MPs seem to have concluded that their best bet politically is to stick with the prime minister. At least for now. This means that Thursday’s vote on whether to refer Johnson to the Privileges Committee is highly unlikely to pass. However, it is far from a pointless exercise.
The motion tabled by the opposition parties will provide the rarest of opportunities for MPs – the chance to call Boris Johnson a liar in the House of Commons chamber. This would normally be prohibited in Parliament but is permitted when dishonesty is the subject of debate. For opposition MPs who have increasingly vocally complained about inaccurate statements made by Johnson and his ministers in the Commons – some of which have been called out by UK Statistics Authority – this represents a golden opportunity.
The second benefit, from the point of view of the opposition, is the chance to compel fence-sitting Conservative MPs to publicly express their support for a law-breaking prime minister – to create a voting-record which their opponents can bring back to bite them during the next election campaign, whether or not Johnson survives. Those Conservative MPs who have continued to find reasons to reserve judgment on the prime minister’s behaviour – waiting on the possibility of further fines, the Sue Gray report, and the outcome of the May local elections – will be forced to declare themselves one way or the other, especially as the government will whip the vote as a matter of confidence.
But the wider significance of Thursday’s debate is the opportunity it provides for MPs to stand up for the principle that Parliament should not be misled. The Privileges Committee may not get the chance to investigate Boris Johnson’s statements if a majority of MPs decline the referral to it, but – in the course of debate – the importance of ministers telling the truth when they speak in Parliament will be reasserted.
This is a key principle underpinning the UK constitution. Parliament has several roles but arguably most important is providing a check on executive power by scrutinising the decisions and actions of government ministers. Without scrutiny ministers would be free to exercise their extensive powers arbitrarily. Their decisions and actions could still be retrospectively challenged in the courts, via judicial review, but – as we have seen in Russia – a country where a legislature’s checks are eroded risks edging towards autocracy.
This is why the accuracy of information ministers give to Parliament is so crucial – scrutiny is ineffective unless ministers answer MPs’ questions truthfully. It is also why the ministerial code imposes the most severe consequences for knowingly misleading parliament – the sanction of resignation is specified whereas for other offences the consequences are left to the prime minister to determine. It is vital for public trust in our system of ministerial accountability that ministers suspected of misleading the House should not be able to do so with impunity. Even if the realities of party politics – the vain hope of the government that this might close down debate over partygate – mean the motion will not pass, it is nonetheless important that it is discussed. Evidence that ministers suspected of lying to Parliament can do so without even being challenged by MPs would do further serious damage to its precarious reputation.