Liz Truss on Tuesday night said she would vote to scrap a Commons investigation into whether Boris Johnson lied over partygate.
Speaking at a Tory leadership hustings in Darlington, she insisted the Prime Minister had not misled Parliament over the scandal.
Asked whether she would vote to end the inquiry by MPs on the standards committee, she said: “Yes – but there isn’t a vote and it’s going ahead.” The Foreign Secretary also appeared to agree with shouts from the audience that the media was responsible for Mr Johnson’s downfall.
It comes as Tory grandees try to force the Commons to abandon its investigation, claiming the inquiry has turned into a “kangaroo court”.
Four of the party’s most senior backbenchers have tabled a motion calling for the privileges committee’s investigation to be “discontinued” and described it as a “stitch-up” to force the Prime Minister out of Parliament.
Sir Bill Cash, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Sir Edward Leigh and David Jones said the committee, chaired by Labour’s Harriet Harman, had moved the goalposts so that Mr Johnson is guaranteed to be found guilty.
Instead of sticking to the established convention of censuring a minister only if they “deliberately or knowingly” misled the Commons – which Mr Johnson denies – the committee will only seek to establish that he misled the House, for which he has already apologised.
The committee has the power to suspend Mr Johnson from Parliament for 10 or more days if it finds him guilty of contempt.
That would trigger a recall petition in his constituency, which could in turn lead to a by-election if 10 per cent of voters in Uxbridge and South Ruislip call for one.
Sir Bill and the other three MPs believe the committee is wilfully ignoring precedent – and the Commons’ own rulebook – to ensure it can convict Mr Johnson of lying to Parliament. They have tabled an early day motion in the Commons in the hope that the Speaker will allow the matter to be debated and put to a vote.
Mr Johnson was fined by police for attending a birthday get-together in the Cabinet room during lockdown in June 2020.
A report by Sue Gray, the senior civil servant, on parties in Downing Street and Whitehall found there were “failures of leadership and judgment in Number 10”. However, it did not judge whether or not the Prime Minister knew rules were being broken.
In April, Parliament gave the go-ahead for the privileges committee to investigate whether Mr Johnson had misled MPs when he said “there was no party and no Covid rules were broken”.
Until now, it had been assumed that he could only be found guilty of contempt of Parliament by the committee if he knew at the time that what he said was wrong – something that is extremely difficult to prove.
But after taking legal advice from Sir Ernest Ryder, a former Appeal Court judge, the committee has made it clear that it does not believe it is necessary to prove intent.
One Tory MP said: “It’s ridiculous to allow this witch-hunt to take place. They have decided to change the terms of reference of this inquiry so that all they have to prove is something he has already admitted.
“They might as well forget about the investigation part and go straight to the punishment, because the result is now a foregone conclusion in what has ended up being a kangaroo court. The whole process is ridiculous, and they just want to kick him while he’s down.”
Four of the seven MPs on the committee are Tories. However one of them, Laura Farris, resigned her position this week and supporters of Mr Johnson hope they can replace her with someone who will argue that the process is unfair and must be rethought.
Thousands of early day motions are tabled every year, meaning few are ever chosen to be debated. As such, Sir Bill and his colleagues hope they can gain more signatures on the motion and increase the pressure on the committee to back down.
The motion “notes the divergence from the established convention” of considering whether the MP “deliberately or knowingly misled the House, departing from … past precedent” and suggests “the proceedings of the committee of privileges on this matter be discontinued”.
A spokesman for the committee said: “There has been no change to the rules or to terms of reference.
“A decision on whether a contempt has been committed is for the Committee and finally the House to decide on the basis of the evidence from the inquiry. The questions the inquiry will set out to answer are: firstly, whether the House was misled; secondly, if so, whether that was a contempt – that is to say an action or omission which may have obstructed or impeded the functioning of the House of Commons; and thirdly, if so, how serious was that contempt. The Committee has not yet assessed the evidence nor has it prejudged any of these questions. The issue of whether the House was deliberately misled may arise under the second and third of those questions asked by the investigation.”