Johnson to tell MPs he is ‘taking responsibility’ for breaking the law, despite repeated denials that he did
Written by Hitmix News on 19 April 2022
Parliament comes back on Tuesday to a first: A sitting prime minister fined by the police for breaking the laws he himself set will appear in the Commons to try to defy political gravity yet again by trying to explain away his lawbreaking.
Something we’ve never seen before in this parliament, it will be a spectacle some might argue takes MPs through the looking glass as Boris Johnson both apologises and – according to his aides – will say he “takes responsibility” for what’s happened, while also insisting he must get on with the job, rule-breaking or not.
Brisk and business-like, this statement on law-breaking will be padded out with an update on the Ukraine-Russia conflict, his controversial Rwandan refugee plan and a trade and diplomatic trip to India later in the week, according to aides.
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This cocktail of “understanding the strength of feeling” in the country and the Commons of his own lawbreaking – 50 fines have already been issued with the investigation – while also reiterating that he “needs to get on with the mandate that he has” could prove toxic and explosive.
Opposition MPs and critics are outraged, calling on the prime minister to resign, arguing that he has misled parliament and broken the ministerial code of upholding standards in public life and then he must go, that Mr Johnson’s “exceptionalism” – the rules don’t count for him – must end.
‘A rogue prime minister’
But it isn’t just the typical critics voicing their dismay. The eminent constitutional historian and crossbench peer Lord Hennessey described Mr Johnson as “the great debaser of decency in public and political life”, who he said has become a “rogue prime minister” unworthy of office.
“He has broken the law, misled parliament and in effect shredded the ministerial code, which is a crucial part of the spinal cord of the constitution.”
And as for voters? Of almost 2,000 people who were asked to give their view on the PM in a few words, 72% were negative with only 16% supportive.
The most common word used to describe Mr Johnson was “liar”, according to the JL Partners poll for The Times.
These are real forces pulling the prime minister down and piling on the pressure, but the immediate focus for No 10 and Mr Johnson this week will be to keep his MPs onside.
Weeks ago the consensus among MPs was that a fixed penalty notice would almost certainly result in a confidence vote in the prime minister.
But now MPs are eyeing the war in Ukraine – and a leader who has in the round had a good conflict, the local elections and a potentially fatally wounded would-be successor in Rishi Sunak. And it has bought Mr Johnson time.
A key 48 hours for the prime minister
But there will be a lot riding on how he handles the next 48 hours, both in terms of his own party and parliament.
He will have to persuade MPs to stick by his side against the backdrop of his own rule-breaking, the possibility of further fines – he’s been linked to up to six events under investigation in total – and whether he misled parliament.
He could also this week face a vote referring him to the privileges committee to investigate whether the PM misled the Commons when he told MPs on different occasions not rules were broken.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Commons speaker, is expected to rule on whether to allow a vote on such a motion but opposition MPs tell me they think it likely.
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1:58 Tobias Ellwood thinks the prime minister should ‘step back’
And that would be the last thing rattled Conservative MPs will want, a vote forcing them to back their rule-breaking PM and protect him from an inquiry just weeks out from local elections.
Such a vote will become a flashpoint on the backbenches. So far only 7 Conservative MPs have publicly called on the PM to resign with immediate effect since No 10 disclosed the PM was to be fined for rule-breaking, with 13 in total now questioning his position.
A vote would flush more out, and while the PM with a working majority of 77 should win the vote, a big rebellion would be undoubtedly damaging.
One senior Labour MP argued that it could even play out as it did for Neville Chamberlain in 1940 when the embattled prime minister won a vote of no-confidence in the House of Commons but effectively lost after over 100 Conservatives either voted with the opposition or deliberately abstained.
Mr Chamberlain won the vote by 281 to 200, but his majority was reduced to 81. Forty-eight hours later Chamberlain resigned.
From the Conservative viewpoint that looks like wishful thinking – for both Mr Johnson’s allies and foes. His supporters point out that the cabinet is united behind their leader and vocal backbench opponents are without real bench strength.
As one cabinet ally put it to me: “I suspect a political attack on the PM will galvanise our benches behind him”.
PM has completely averted danger
Foes agree arguing that this week will be cosmetically bad for Mr Johnson with difficult questions to answer and perhaps some angry MPs, but the bandwagon will roll on for some time yet.
But they are clear too that the danger for him is delayed rather than extinguished.
One senior backbencher told me that the prime minister was benefiting from a combination of the Ukraine conflict and a “short poppy” cabinet.
The former has persuaded some MPs not to move against the PM for now, while the latter means that Mr Johnson manages to avoid competition and dissent, with powerful and experienced party figures such as Jeremy Hunt, Penny Mordaunt, Liam Fox and David Davis confined to the backbenches.
“There’s no point moving against him now, because he would win a confidence vote,” observed one senior Conservative MP.
“So, he’ll remain in place for now. But the longer the Ukraine war continues, the less of a reason it becomes for him to stay, while the local elections might not trigger his immediate demise but will focus MPs’ minds on their patch.
“Then comes the national insurance rise, which means get blamed for the cost-of-living crisis. By the end of the year, he could be in facing that vote.”
Removing a sitting PM takes time
His enemies within are, says one opponent, “gradually building a coalition of people” that feel the same and are of the view that the prime minister “unquestionably needs to go”.
But pulling together a coalition to remove a sitting Conservative leader takes time – just look at how long it took to unseat Theresa May and Iain Duncan Smith.
But what has become clearer amongst the MPs I speak to is a growing sense that the magic around their once talismanic leader Boris Johnson is wearing off.
The vote winner fast became a liability to the party. And for others their judgement on Mr Johnson is about principle too; about maintaining standards in public life and trust in politics; ascribing to the values of law and order that once defined the Conservative party.
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One senior government figure commenting on what lies ahead told me over the bank holiday “that nothing has changed for days” when it came to MPs’ sentiment towards the PM.
But there could be more fines coming, a cost-of-living crisis in full flight, and potentially dreadful local elections. Don’t mistake stillness on the surface for complacency. This is a PM facing incredibly stormy times.
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