Boris Johnson’s latest ‘partygate’ drama comes with danger for Rishi Sunak

Boris Johnson’s latest ‘partygate’ drama comes with danger for Rishi Sunak

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak’s political relationship resembles no other in recent political history. Not even the battle of the Milibands, nor Johnson’s Brexit manoeuvring under David Cameron, reflect the sour liaison of the current prime minister and his predecessor-once-removed. 

A new chapter in Boris and Rishi’s storied relationship will be penned later this week with the former’s appearance before the cross-party privileges committee. The topic will be “partygate” and, more specifically, whether Mr Johnson lied to the House of Commons about his knowledge of No 10’s lockdown-busting parties.

If the MPs conclude that the former PM is guilty they will recommend a punishment which could lead to him losing his seat.

The signs look foreboding for the former PM, with the committee’s interim report detailing last month that it should have been “obvious” that the gatherings broke the rules.

Nonetheless, it is clear that Mr Johnson plans to fight the allegations against him with typical robustness. 

Johnson’s defence looks set to focus on the perceived biases of the privileges committee, which is chaired by Labour MP Harriet Harman. The committee’s reliance on the report into Downing Street parties by Sue Gray, set to be appointed Sir Keir Starmer’s chief of staff. And a tranche of WhatsApps which supposedly show Mr Johnson was advised that the gatherings were lawful. 

The nature of Johnson’s defence and the very existence of the committee’s investigation has far-reaching implications not only for Mr Johnson, but Rishi Sunak too.

Crucially, Mr Johnson’s allies within the Conservative parliamentary party have been very active over the past few weeks in rubbishing the work of the privileges committee. 

Former cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg has said that the committee would make “a kangaroo court look respectable”.

Former home secretary Priti Patel claimed the hearing will “put our democracy in a very, very bad light”.

And Conor Burns, a Conservative MP and former minister, has cast aspirations on the committee’s impartiality. He told BBC’s Westminster Hour programme: 

I rate Harriet Harman highly but she did tweet in April 2022 that if the prime minister, the former prime minister, the now prime minister, the former chancellor, admit guilt by which she said was accepting a fixed penalty notice then they are also admitting that they misled the House of Commons.

The nature of the attacks have already served to open up divisions within Mr Sunak’s party. 

In the House of Commons last week, senior Conservative MP Simon Hoare asked for reassurances from Leader of the House Penny Mordaunt that the privileges committee’s operations would be “free and unfettered to get on with their work and free of interference or intimidation”.

Ms Mordaunt stressed in her reply that there would be a “very dim view” taken in government of any attempt to hinder the privileges committee’s work.

If a sanction is recommended by the privileges committee, MPs will ultimately be granted a free vote on whether to implement it. This could split the Conservative party and potentially the cabinet.

There were confirmed to be around 100 MPs willing to back Mr Johnson’s return as leader in October ahead of Rishi Sunak. These included foreign secretary James Cleverly, defence secretary Ben Wallace and Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris. 

The prime minister will himself have the unenviable task of choosing how to vote here or whether to abstain, knowing he risks angering sections of his party no matter the outcome. 

In a worst case scenario for Mr Johnson, there is the prospect of a by-election being triggered in his constituency. This would see the former prime minister dominating politics for weeks or months during a crucial pre-election period. 

In the short term, Mr Johnson’s appearance at the committee overshadows a big week for the prime minister, with a vote on the Windsor Framework, the new Brexit agreement which overrides Mr Johnson’s NI Protocol, also set for a vote on Wednesday.

Furthermore, the very fact that the prime minister was fined for his attendance at a partygate gathering, alongside Mr Johnson, will no doubt be raised at the hearing. It will remind the public of a very embarrassing chapter in Mr Sunak’s career. 


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