The Privileges Committee

6 April 2023

The Privileges Committee

An instrument of resurrection.

By Robert Kilconner

We all know the proverb “Those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad”. It has certainly been around since the 17th century and some accord it Latin or Greek provenance. What is less well known is that when the Gods wish to resurrect someone they apply the same principle by inflicting madness upon their enemies.

Take the recent hearings of the Privileges Committee of the House for example. On paper it all looks sensible enough. If Boris knowingly or recklessly lied to the House he should be punished: if not, that should be the end of the matter. The members of the committee are distinguished and fair-minded people and no doubt they will leave their own political views aside, as Harriet Harman the chairwoman said they must. It’s all quite fair, a quasi-judicial process which, in the minds of those who have insisted on a reference, should nail down Johnston’s parliamentary coffin and prevented him rising from the ashes like a phoenix to mount a challenge for the premiership. Unfortunately it will do nothing of the sort.

If the Committee acquits Johnson his position will of course have been strengthened. But I doubt if that is the outcome he is hoping for because although a finding against him might be a setback in legal terms, in political terms the position is wholly different.

Let us suppose that he is held to have deliberately misled the House of Commons and that the sanction, endorsed by the House itself, is a suspension of more than 10 sitting days. In those circumstances the electors of Uxbridge and South Ruislip can remove Johnson as an MP if 10% of them are prepared to sign the recall petition. It may not be that easy to corral that 10%. Johnson is no longer Prime Minister and many of his constituents, even those opposed to him, may dislike the idea of being involved in a witch hunt. If the 10% threshold is not met Johnson will claim that he has kept the confidence of his electors and that will strengthen him. But I think that he will hope that the threshold is met and that he gets the opportunity to fight a by-election.

Here the maths looks hopeful for those who would like to see Johnson pushed permanently out of politics. At the last election he received just over 52% of the votes. If sufficient Tories were annoyed at his conduct to stay home, and he certainly annoyed an awful lot of people, well then, Bob’s your Uncle. His enemies can poor themselves a stiff one and celebrate the almost certain triumph of their tactics. Which all goes to show that they have forgotten all about Patrick Gordon Walker.

Prior to the 1964 General Election, Gordon Walker was the Labour MP for Smethwick and shadow foreign secretary. Although Harold Wilson won that election, ousting Douglas Home’s Tory government, Gordon Walker lost his seat after a particularly unpleasant and vitriolic local campaign. That was rather a problem as Wilson wanted Gordon Walker as foreign secretary. What to do? “Aha” said some genius in Labour’s strategy department “the problem is a simple one if we employ the little grey cells. Find a safe Labour constituency, say Leyton, enoble the member and let the good Patrick take the seat in the consequent by election.” So that is what they did and it all went to plan except for one small hitch.  The electors of Leyton resented being pushed about and eIected a Tory. Ooops!

The fact is that electors do not like being pushed around and told what to do; and faced by pressure, and there will be pressure, to jettison their MP they are very likely to confirm him in office. And for Johnson a new mandate would be a shot in the arm; at the first slip from Rishi he would be back. Cakeism would flow through the land and the unspeakable Mogg would again be arrogantly sprawled across the Government front bench. And whose fault will this disaster be? Those who wanted to complete Johnson’s political destruction. Those who cannot pass someone lying in the gutter without stepping across to give them a kick.

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