Laura Farris’ speech in the House of Commons on 10 July 2023 regarding the importance and integrity of the Privileges Committee

If the pandemic was a tragedy then the various partygate revelations were perhaps black farces. To continue the analogy, the report into the then PM’s conduct, in particular with regard to his candour and veracity at the dispatch box, can be seen as a sober and dispassionate review. Not all the performers welcomed this judgement, particularly not the lead actor. That is, however, what happens when you put in a poor performance.

Performances that were in many ways even poorer were put in by those who sought to undermine and discredit this investigation. These started while the Privileges Committee was considering the matter (criticism of the attempted interference was trenchantly referred to in its report) and have continued since.

The snipers included current members of both Houses, all of whom should know better. All credible evidence suggests that the committee members conducted their difficult work with the utmost probity and integrity. To suggest otherwise is, at best, highly disrespectful. One of the recurring themes was that the Committee’s decision would be pre-determined, a savage charge to lay at the door of any enquiry. In fact, it was the accusers who were guilty of this. 

The fall out from this deeply unedifying episode rumbles on and will doubtless be re-ignited when various by-elections, some of which were triggered by the publication, take place on 20 July. In addition, the matter had another airing in the Commons in a debate on 10 July.

During the course of this, the Newbury MP Laura Farris made what I thought was a quite superb speech defending the work of the Committee and, in particular, its Chair Harriet Harman, in the process taking a couple of very well directed swipes at one of the accusers. I have republished the text of this verbatim below, the only change from the Hansard version being the insertion of a few extra paragraph breaks.

 

I have said nothing on this matter until today, as I did not consider that I had a right to do so because I was a member of the Privileges Committee for only a brief time. I was formally replaced by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker), who is now in his place, in September 2022, before the substance of the investigation into Boris Johnson began.

I want to highlight some of the comments that were made during the period in which I was a member of the Committee, and I feel impelled to do so because I consider that the issues go to the heart of how we choose to regulate ourselves as Members of Parliament and of the treatment we are willing to tolerate of those Members who put themselves forward to assist in the proper functioning of this House.

As the report points out, the work of the Privileges Committee is “crucial to our democracy” because the functioning of Parliament and the way we discharge our obligations to those we represent depend on Ministers being truthful in what they say at the Dispatch Box.

I was asked to become a member of the Committee in or around April 2022 by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher), who was then Deputy Chief Whip. I had expressed no interest in joining the Committee, and I do not say that to be critical —it is just a fact. It is not something I had previously considered or wanted to do. I know the same applies to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who was asked to chair the Committee by her party’s Whips after the hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant) recused himself. The Chair had to be a Labour MP under the Standing Order, and it had to be someone of sufficient seniority, so the Mother of the House was an obvious candidate. She had expressed no previous interest, but she accepted the request.

I make it clear that I am mounting no criticism of either Government or Opposition Whips, who play an important role in the smooth operation of Parliament. It was incumbent on them to find Members for this difficult and sensitive task. The Mother of the House’s appointment was not just the choice of the Opposition Whips; it was approved by the Whips on our side—I remember the discussion about it. I know that the Mother of the House drew the attention of our Whips to the tweet that she had written, and again this was approved. Ultimately, both our memberships were approved by the whole House, because the motion passed without Division.

To contextualise the appointment of the Mother of the House, I want to say on her behalf that she had already announced her intention to retire from Parliament at the next election. Her parliamentary career has spanned five decades and has been defined, probably more so than that of any other person who has ever sat in this House, by her commitment to the advancement of women’s rights. Fourteen weeks before she took up that appointment, her husband of 40 years, Jack, had died. Against that background, I invite Members to consider what is more likely: that she agreed to chair the Committee as a final act of service to this House or that she did so because she was interested in pursuing a personal vendetta against Boris Johnson?

I want to make reference to three tweets written by Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park—he is named in the report and I have given notice to his office that I intend to do so. Two were written while I was a member of the Committee, on 23 July and 7 August 2022, and one is a retweet, referred to in the report, on 9 June 2023. The first two were written at a time when the Committee had done no substantive work; the only thing it had done was make a request for disclosure to No. 10 Downing Street. He wrote:

“The Partygate probe is clearly rigged. It is a jury comprised of highly partisan, vengeful & vindictive MPs, nearly all of whom are already on the record viciously attacking the person they are judging. It is an obscene abuse of power.”

Another said:

“Anyone who has any experience of MPs knows you cannot trust them to judge their peers except through the lens of their own ambition & prejudices. It’s why this system is so open to corruption.”

It is completely unacceptable to allege or insinuate that members of the Privileges Committee are corrupt or that the inquiry was somehow rigged. The report uses the nomenclature of “contempt”, but with the word “corrupt” one could also argue that it is libellous.

It has been repeatedly overlooked that a number of the Conservative members of the Committee, including my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington South (Andy Carter), for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) and for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), had already undertaken a disciplinary inquiry into Boris Johnson in July 2021 on a completely separate matter. They had been asked to consider whether his holiday in Mustique had been properly declared; they could have found against him, but in fact they found in his favour. So there was no principled reason for Lord Goldsmith’s attack, no empirical basis for contending that the Committee could not have found in Boris Johnson’s favour, because on a previous occasion it already had.

At all times, it would have been open to Members of this House to vote against the Committee’s final recommendations, had they disagreed. I cannot avoid the conclusion that the tweets were designed to pressurise the members of the Committee and undermine their work—I say that as someone who, in the end, did not hear the inquiry into Boris Johnson.

However, I think that the conduct of Lord Goldsmith manifestly fell below the standard acceptable for any Member of the upper House, let alone a Minister of his Majesty’s Government. I hope you will forgive me, Mr Deputy Speaker, if I add that I found the environmental pretext that was advanced to justify his resignation somewhat unconvincing, in circumstances where his nose had clearly been put out of joint after he was asked only hours earlier to apologise.

You can also see a video of Laura Farris’ speech by clicking here to visit the Politics Joe YouTube page. The image at the head of this post has been taken from that.

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