A Commons inquiry into whether Boris Johnson misled MPs over Partygate is set to coincide with a Conservative party conference already seen as crucial to resetting his leadership.
The Prime Minister appears to have survived any immediate threat to his leadership following last week’s Sue Gray report into the Downing Street parties, which revealed damning details of rule-breaking, drunkenness and abuse of the No 10 staff during Covid closures.
However, with a slow trickle of criticism continuing to emerge from Tory MPs over the weekend, Johnson’s team are aware the issue of his statements to Parliament will drag on for months.
With two by-elections to come, it means the Prime Minister faces challenges that are likely to further damage his reputation as the winner of the vote and raise more questions about his conduct.
It is now feared that an inquiry into whether or not he misled Parliament could fall on either side of the autumn Tory conference in early October. That means the findings could either disrupt Johnson’s preparations for the event or block any reset he tries to make there.
Officials of the House of Commons Privileges Committee have begun to think about how the investigation will work, but it cannot begin in earnest until the committee completes an ongoing investigation. This will end at the beginning of next month. Once the terms of reference are set and the evidence gathered, the Prime Minister will be given a deadline to respond to any allegations, through lawyers if necessary – a process that will take weeks. A source said the process would take the release date into the party’s conference season.
The committee will likely focus on a departure event on November 13, 2020. When asked if there was a party on that date, Johnson told the Commons: “No, but I’m sure whatever happened, the guidelines were followed and the rules were followed. at all times.’ The Gray report confirmed that an event had taken place. Some were fined for it. The Prime Minister was present and gave a parting speech. Gray, he consumed alcohol at the rally.
Three Tory MPs have given up their posts as ministerial aides in order to continue serving on the committee investigating its Prime Minister. All three are independent-minded and not considered ultra-loyal to Downing Street. That means questions about Johnson’s character will linger for months. October is also the month when energy bills will rise by up to £800 a year, meaning Johnson is unlikely to get much political breathing space when MPs return to the Commons after the summer.
There are several dangerous moments for Johnson even before the summer recess, when Parliament closes and MPs head to their constituencies. It is understood that Sir John Major is lined up to appear before a select committee in the coming weeks, when he is expected to raise concerns over Johnson’s decision to weaken the ministerial code and not allow his adviser on the code to start its own investigations.
Another Tory MP, Angela Richardson, compared the move to the government’s botched attempt to shield former MP Owen Paterson from being suspended for lobbying. “It feels like the Owen Paterson case again,” she said. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting a different result.”
Wavering Tory MPs are urged to snitch on the Prime Minister if the party loses two forthcoming by-elections – one in Wakefield, seen as a test of Johnson’s continued support in the former Labor ‘red wall’ seats, and another in Tiverton and Honiton, where the Lib Dems are trying to overthrow a huge Tory majority. Both contests represent a coalition of voters that Johnson was able to pull together to win the last election. Tory MPs are warning that both sides of this coalition are collapsing.
Former Cabinet Minister Robert Buckland said “changes will have to be made” if the contests result in heavy defeats. The Lib Dems are already battling hard in Tiverton, although early reports suggest the profile of Tory voters is different to those in North Shropshire, where the Lib Dems secured a shock by-election victory last year. There have been allegations that appearances by Conservative candidate for Tiverton, Helen Hurford, have been limited by Central Office due to Partygate fallout.