A House of Commons inquiry over whether Boris Johnson misled MPs over Partygate is on course to coincide with a Tory party conference already seen as crucial in resetting his leadership.
The prime minister appeared to have survived any immediate threat to his leadership in the wake of last week’s Sue Gray report on Downing Street parties, which revealed damning details of rule-breaking, drunkenness and abuse of No 10 staff during Covid lockdowns.
However, with a slow trickle of criticism still emerging from Tory MPs this weekend, Johnson’s team are aware that the issue of his statements to parliament will drag on for months to come.
Together with two forthcoming byelections, it means the prime minister faces challenges that risk inflicting further damage to his reputation as a vote-winner and raising more questions about his conduct.
There are now concerns that an inquiry examining whether or not he misled parliament could fall either side of the autumn Tory conference at the start of October. It means the findings could either disrupt Johnson’s preparations for the event, or stall any reset he attempts to make there.
Officials for the House of Commons privileges committee have undertaken some initial thinking about how the inquiry will work, but the investigation cannot begin in earnest until the committee has completed an existing inquiry. That will conclude early next month. After terms of reference are set and evidence collected, there will be a period for the prime minister to respond to any allegations, through lawyers if necessary – a process that will take weeks to complete. One source said the process would take the publication date into the party conference season.
The committee is likely to focus on a leaving event on 13 November 2020. Asked if there was a party on that date, Johnson told the Commons: “No, but I am sure that whatever happened, the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times.” The Gray report confirmed that an event had taken place. Some have been fined in relation to it. The prime minister attended and made a leaving speech. As the photographs published in the Gray report prove, he consumed alcohol at the gathering.
Three Tory MPs have given up jobs as ministerial aides in order to continue on the committee for its inquiry into the prime minister. All three are independent-minded and not regarded as ultra-loyal to Downing Street. That means the questions over Johnson’s character will persist for months. October is also the month that energy bills will rise by as much as £800 a year, meaning Johnson is unlikely to have much political respite when MPs return to the Commons after the summer.
There are several dangerous moments for Johnson even before the summer recess, when parliament closes down and MPs head to their constituencies. It is understood that Sir John Major is being lined up to appear at a select committee in the next few weeks, when he is expected to disclose his concerns about Johnson’s decision to weaken the ministerial code and not allow his adviser on the code to start his own investigations.
Another Tory MP, Angela Richardson, compared the move to the government’s botched attempt to protect former MP Owen Paterson from being suspended over lobbying. “This feels like the Owen Paterson affair again,” she said. “The definition of madness is doing the same thing over and expecting a different result.”
Wavering Tory MPs are being urged to speak out against the prime minister should the party lose two forthcoming byelections – one in Wakefield, regarded as a test of Johnson’s continuing support in former Labour “red wall” seats, and another in Tiverton and Honiton, where the Lib Dems are attempting to overturn a huge Tory majority. The two contests represent a coalition of voters that Johnson was able to bring together to win the last election. Tory MPs warn that both sides of that coalition are crumbling.
Former cabinet minister Robert Buckland said “changes will have to be made” if the contests result in heavy defeats. The Lib Dems are already fighting hard in Tiverton, though early reports suggest that the profile of Tory voters is different from those in North Shropshire, where the Lib Dems secured a shock byelection victory last year. There have been claims that appearances by the Tory candidate in Tiverton, Helen Hurford, have been limited by central office because of the Partygate fallout.