In the UK, misleading parliament is a serious offence. The clearest rules around making inaccurate statements to parliament come from outside of the institution itself. They come from the ministerial code (which applies to ministers) and the Seven Principles of Public Life (which applies to all those in public office).
The ministerial code states in Section 1.3.C that:
It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.
This entry in the ministerial code stems from the principle of “honesty” contained in the Seven Principles of Public Life, established in 1995 by the Committee on Standards in Public Life after a series of scandals. The principle articulates that “holders of public office should be truthful”. It is this principle which also underpins the expectation that MPs (as well as ministers) will not mislead the House.
Erskine May, the guide to parliamentary procedure, states that “The Commons may treat the making of a deliberately misleading statement as a contempt”. This mechanism was used in 1963 when war minister John Profumo was the subject of a motion accusing him of a “grave contempt”, for having made a statement in the Commons “containing words which he later admitted not to be true”.
Accusations of knowingly misleading the House have more recently been levelled at former prime minister Boris Johnson, because of his repeated denials that he knew COVID-19 lockdown rules were being broken in Downing Street throughout the pandemic. On December 8 2021, Labour MP Catherine West asked:
Will the prime minister tell the House whether there was a party in Downing Street on 13 November 2020?
To which Johnson replied:
No – but I am sure that whatever happened, the guidance was followed, and the rules were followed at all times.
This was the first of a number of exchanges which started off the allegations. Of course we know the rules and guidance were not followed at all times. The Metropolitan Police’s investigation into the gatherings in Downing Street led to 126 fines being issued to 83 individuals, including Johnson and his wife.
A matter of intention
The House of Commons Committee of Privileges is investigating whether Johnson misled parliament over the partygate allegations (and therefore was in contempt of parliament).
The key word in the question of whether Johnson or any other MP has broken the ministerial code is “knowingly”. Did they “knowingly” mislead parliament? The key word in Erskine May is “deliberately”. Both are very difficult to prove.
We know that Johnson attended parties. The question at hand is whether he knew he was breaking the rules when he did so – because he told MPs that he didn’t.
Following the publication of the Sue Gray report into the parties and the police investigation that led to his fine, Johnson said in a statement to the House:
I am happy to set on the record now that when I said – I came to this house and said in all sincerity that the rules and guidance had been followed at all times – it was what I believed to be true. It was certainly the case when I was present at gatherings to wish staff farewell.
At the time, some saw this as Johnson correcting the record following the publication of the Gray report. In doing this, they see him as fulfilling the demands of the ministerial code, which requires MPs to acknowledge and make good on any untruths they have inadvertently added to that record.
It might also be said that he only did this after getting caught.
It is important to note, too, that once an issue is referred to the privileges committee by the House of Commons, the investigation can only be paused or stopped by a second motion from the House. This second motion did not materialise (as it would have looked like an abuse of power), so the committee has continued its investigation even though Johnson has since left office.
What are the consequences?
On March 3, the committee published an interim report summarising the issues members wish to raise with Johnson when he is asked to appear in front of them. The committee has said “the evidence strongly suggests” it should have been obvious to the then prime minister that guidance was being breached. The report also noted that Johnson had personal knowledge of other gatherings which he could have disclosed to parliament but chose not to.
The interim report did not directly accuse Johnson of knowingly misleading parliament, but this is not the end of the process. The next stage is oral evidence in which Johnson will be called to explain himself, alongside a number of other people implicated in the partygate scandal.
If the privileges committee concludes that Johnson knowingly misled parliament, there are a range of sanctions it could recommend. But as he no longer holds the office of prime minister or any other ministerial office, these can only relate to his status as a sitting MP.
Johnson could be suspended from the House of Commons for a number of days. If the committee recommends a suspension of 10 sitting days (or more), it would trigger a recall petition. This would give Johnson’s constituents the chance to trigger a by-election for his seat, which could end up with him losing it.
However, we are a long way from this. The House of Commons, as a whole, would need to approve the recommendations from the committee. By convention, recommendations are accepted without debate or question, but the Conservative party still commends a majority in the House of Commons. The government could choose to save Johnson from his fate by forcing a vote on the recommendations and whipping its MPs to reject them. We will have to wait for the committee’s final report to see how parliament and the government will respond.