Rishi Sunak has faced heavy criticism for missing a parliamentary vote on the report into Boris Johnson’s conduct, as former prime minister Theresa May said it was “doubly important” for Tory MPs to publicly back it.
The House of Commons privileges committee’s 33,000-word report, which was published last week, found that Johnson had committed five contempts of parliament. These included deliberately misleading MPs about the partygate scandal and being complicit in a campaign of abuse towards the MPs that undertook the probe.
The report, which had recommended suspending Johnson from parliament for 90 days if he had not already quit as an MP and withholding a Commons access pass from him, was laid before parliament for formal approval on Monday.
Labour forced a vote on the report, which was overwhelmingly approved by 354 votes to 7.
In total 118 Tories backed it, including the justice secretary Alex Chalk, education secretary Gillian Keegan, chief whip Simon Hart, Welsh secretary David TC Davies and security minister Tom Tugendhat.
Only six Tories, including veteran Brexiter Sir Bill Cash, opposed the report.
Earlier in the day Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, speaking to ITV, had urged Sunak to “show leadership” and “show us where he stands on this” by turning up to the debate and taking part in the vote on it.
However, Downing Street had said Sunak was hosting Sweden prime minister Ulf Kristersson in the afternoon before attending a charity dinner in the evening, and therefore would be “monitoring the situation” in the Commons remotely.
When pressed on his view of the report and its recommendations, Sunak said it was “a matter for the House rather than the government” and said to ITV that he did not wish to “influence” any MPs in advance of a potential vote by commenting further.
Speaking in the debate, one of his predecessors, May, took a thinly veiled swipe at him by singling out her own party and saying: “It is doubly important for us [Tory MPs] to show that we are prepared to act when one of our own — however senior — is found wanting.”
The former prime minister confirmed she would vote in favour of the “rigorous” report and paid tribute to the “painstaking work and dignity” of the MPs on the privileges committee in the face of “slurs on their integrity”.
She warned that trust between the public and parliament was “undermined” if people saw MPs trying to “save the careers of friends” who were “guilty of wrongdoing”.
Her intervention came after Commons leader Penny Mordaunt also disclosed that she would vote in support of the report.
The committee exists “to defend our rights and privileges in this place” including “the right not to be misled” and “the right not to be abused while carrying out our duties”, said Mordaunt, adding: “The integrity of our institutions matter.”
She also suggested the public believed Johnson was responsible for a “debasement of the honours system”, following his row with Sunak over his nominations for peerages.
Thangam Debbonaire, Labour’s shadow leader of the Commons, said the public wanted a prime minister who acted honestly and told the truth, in the wake of the report’s findings that Johnson repeatedly lied.
She questioned Sunak’s failure to turn up, saying: “He is not able to turn the page on his predecessor”. The prime minister has “shown he’s too weak to stand up to Boris Johnson and his sycophants”, she said.
Only a smattering of backbench Tory MPs were present for much of the debate, with some privately admitting they had decided to stay away to avoid publicly endorsing the report in the wake of deselection threats from some of Johnson’s supporters.
By turns, some allies of the former prime minister declared they were “boycotting” the vote after Johnson himself urged them not to oppose it. Former minister Brendan Clarke-Smith said he rejected the “appalling recommendations” of the report, but did not wish to give “others the satisfaction of taking part in their silly games” by taking part in a vote on it.
Johnson and some of his loyalists have sought to discredit the privileges committee by arguing that its chair Harriet Harman, the veteran Labour MP, held “prejudicial views”.
During the debate Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg brought up her past tweets criticising Johnson, in response to which Harman disclosed that the government had given her assurances that she would not be seen as biased towards the ex-prime minister, after she offered to step aside as chair.
Actor Sir Ian McKellen looked on from the Commons gallery, occasionally using opera glasses to observe MPs in the chamber below.
Earlier on Monday the Metropolitan Police confirmed they were reviewing video footage that had emerged of a Christmas party held by Tory activists during the height of the pandemic in December 2020.
Invitations to a “jingle and mingle” party, seen by the BBC, were sent to Tory campaigners in London at a time when indoor socialising was banned in the capital under coronavirus rules.