The Prime Minister has no doubt had a successful month, which was rounded off on Wednesday with the House of Commons passing the ‘Stormont Break’ element of his flagship Windsor Framework by a majority of 487 votes. The Framework, set out this month alongside the President of the European Union, Ursula Von de Leyen, aims to alleviate many of the post-Brexit trade frictions created by Boris Johnson’s Northern Ireland Protocol. Sunak however, in what should have been a climactic moment of triumph, was gazumped by the former Prime Minister who went before the Parliamentary Privileges Committee on Wednesday afternoon to plead his case over Partygate. Subsequently, this dominated the headlines and stole the limelight from Rishi Sunak.
The hearing was arduous for all involved, lasted for three hours (barring a short break for Johnson to vote on the Stormont Break) and focussed broadly on the minor details of Boris Johnson’s handling of the Partygate scandal. Chair of the Privileges Committee, Harriet Harman, grilled the former Prime Minister on issues such as what advice he had been given on parties from his inner circle, how much knowledge he had of parties in No.10 more widely, and his own social distancing guidance. Conservative MPs on the committee criticised the conduct of those around Johnson this week, who aimed to sow seeds of doubt surrounding the motivations and aims of the committee in the media. Broadly, the former PM put up a decent fight and we now await the findings of the committee and the political fate that awaits Boris Johnosn.
Rishi Sunak did take opportunity however from such media focus on Boris Johnson. While the former Prime Minister was being skewered by the Privileges Committee on Wednesday afternoon, No.10 quietly briefed out Sunak’s long awaited tax returns. In the concise briefing, we learned that the Prime Minister made almost £5 million in the last three years thanks to his US-based investment fund, paying just over £1 million in tax (an effective 22% tax rate). Three guesses of what Deputy Labour Leader Angela Rayner had to say about that.
The media obviously fell into their respective party political lines in its analysis of the Parliamentary Privileges Committee hearing. If you read the Daily Mail, the Express, the Telegraph or the Sun on Thursday morning, Boris Johnson put in a herculean effort in the face of a politically motivated Kangaroo court. However, the fact that he received just as much of a rollocking from Conservative members of the committee as he did Labour members pokes a few holes in this analysis. If you read the Mirror or the Guardian on Thursday morning, Boris Johnson was an under-briefed ball of sweat that lost his temper in the face of scrutiny of his reckless and hapless attitude towards Parliament in his tenure as Prime Minister. Realistically though, there is far more nuance to be found between the lines of this issue.
A more balanced analysis however asks what all of this means for adjudicating the concept of misleading Parliament in the future. It is not uncommon for Parliament to take a more relaxed approach to recklessly misleading the House. It happens more often than you might think, from backbench MPs to Ministers and Secretaries of State. It can happen as a result of mispeaking or not reading a briefing paper correctly. Going forward, what the Privileges Committee is likely to focus on is making sure that Members return to the House as soon as possible to correct the record to ensure that basic standards are maintained.
All of this takes away from the multitude of political successes that the current Prime Minister has secured over the last month, culminating with a stonking victory in the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon. Rishi Sunak now looks ahead to the local elections, where he has been under immense pressure from his backbenchers to refocus the Party’s efforts to realign with the issues that the electorate believe to be salient. Knowing that most of the Cost of Living Crisis is mostly out of his hands, such as inflation being dependent on global variables and interest rates on the Bank of England, Sunak has ensured to fine-tune the issues that he does have control over such as immigration, public spending and Brexit. CalComms spoke with a Conservative backbench MP recently, who believes that the Prime Minister has ‘done well in taking the Government out of the 6 o’clock news’. It seems then that the Prime Minister’s gargantuan effort has seen-off backbench anxiety for now, increasing hopes of a less-than-fatal blow at the upcoming local elections in May. Over to Labour…
Many are asking - where has the Labour Party been over the last month? The Party faces its most crucial electoral test at the upcoming local elections, and throughout the last month has been mostly absent from the headlines bar a speech on crime on Thursday which BBC and Sky felt they could cut away from. Following Sir Keir Starmer’s publication of his five-point plan to address the country’s issues, we have not seen much of Labour while Sunak scores goal after goal. It is safe to say that the Party, through being overly reliant on the ‘we are not the Tories’ strategy, is at risk of scuppering its substantial polling lead which it has built over the last year, as voters now see Rishi Sunak as the more capable and competent PM. If Keir Starmer cannot land a killer blow on the Conservatives in what should be an easy local elections cycle, we could begin hearing some rumblings of discomfort on the Labour backbenches.