Even by the usual rough-and-tumble standards of U.K. politics, the recent hauling over the coals of Prime Minister Boris Johnson inside the House of Commons was a remarkable spectacle.
For almost two hours on Jan. 31, 2022, he faced opposition politicians – and even some from within his own ranks – scolding him for his role in a scandal over partying in the prime minister’s official residence on Downing Street during the COVID-19 lockdown. One party leader was ejected and another slurred by a third over a false claim propagated by online conspiracy theorists.
Viewers in the U.S. may have been curious over some of the seemingly arcane and unruly goings-on. So The Conversation called on Garret Martin from American University’s Transatlantic Policy Center to help provide some answers.
What exactly is ‘partygate’?
Boris Johnson has had a bit of a rough time of late. A series of leaks to the media revealed that at the same time his government was telling the British public to observe strict social-distancing rules, members of his staff were holding what appeared to be boozy parties at No. 10 Downing St., the prime minister’s official residence, as well as in its garden.
Under the cloud of this criminal investigation – and with an update from Gray indicating serious failings on the government’s part – Johnson was forced to face elected politicians in the House of Commons for a grilling on Jan. 31, and again two days later at the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions, at which Members of Parliament get to direct questions directly at the premier.
Who was the guy shouting ‘order, order!’ and why?
That was the speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle.
The role of the speaker in the main chamber of the U.K. Parliament has a long history dating back to the 14th century. It shares some similarities with the position of the speaker of the House of Representatives in the U.S., but there are also noticeable differences. In particular, speakers in the U.K. are supposed to be impartial figures – they resign from their party upon appointment.
Speakers run the debates in Parliament, in a role that is somewhat, in the words of the U.K. think tank Institute for Government, “part chair, part referee, and part symbolic representative of the Commons as whole.”
This role includes deciding which Members of Parliament can speak during debates and which amendments should be considered for vote.
The speaker is supposed to remain impartial, but that is sometimes easier said than done. During the height of the Brexit saga – the process by which the U.K. left the European Union – then-Speaker John Bercow made several controversial rulings when it came to parliamentary debates. This made him a divisive figure: celebrated by many as a champion of parliamentary oversight, and suspected by many others of trying to undo the results of the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Why did the speaker eject a politician in the partygate debate?
Along with their other roles, speakers are expected to keep an eye on the tone of the debates in Parliament. During the Jan. 31 session, the leader of the Scottish National Party in Westminster, Ian Blackford, was kicked out of the Commons for calling Boris Johnson a “liar” over the lockdown parties.
There is no set list of unacceptable words. But speakers, in charge of maintaining civility in Parliament, can ask MPs to withdraw words deemed impolite. This has included in the past words such as “liar,” “traitor,” “hooligan” and “stool pigeon.” Blackford was given a number of chances to withdraw his “liar” comment, but he declined, leading to the speaker’s ejecting him from the chamber.
So why were other slurs allowed in the debate?
Aside from refraining from incivility, Members of Parliament still receive significant protection over what they can say as a result of something called “parliamentary privilege.”
This shields them from being sued or prosecuted, such as for defamation, if the libelous statement is made in the chamber, Westminster Hall or a committee of the House of Commons.
This protection dates back to the 1689 Bill of Rights. Its initial purpose was to protect Parliament members from being brought before the courts by the crown and accused of seditious libel.
On Feb. 2, the speaker issued a statement that seemed to condemn an earlier slur – apparently originating from online conspiracy theorists – directed by Boris Johnson to opposition leader Keir Starmer. But he could not take any further action because it did not contravene parliamentary rules; likewise, even if it were deemed to be defamatory, there is nothing Starmer could do about it.
What happens next – could Boris Johnson be forced out?
Partygate, and other recent reports that reflect badly on Boris Johnson and his party, has left the prime minister vulnerable. He could even lose his job, since U.K. prime ministers can be ousted by their own party members.
U.K. political parties follow different rules on how they can remove a leader, with the threshold for holding a vote of no confidence low for Johnson’s Conservatives. It only requires the support of 15% of sitting Conservative Members of Parliament, which equates to 54 out of the current 359 Conservative members. Members can send letters of no confidence at any time to the head of the 1922 Committee, which represents the “backbenchers” – the more junior members of the party.
The leader of that committee keeps the tally secret until the 15% threshold has been reached. After that, the confidence vote can happen rather quickly. The last leadership challenge, against Theresa May in December 2018, took place within hours of the threshold being reached.
Triggering the vote is easy, but unseating the incumbent prime minister is a more difficult thing to do. To save his job, Boris Johnson simply needs to get the backing of a majority of the current Conservative Members of Parliament in a secret ballot. He would also receive immunity from any new leadership challenge in the following 12-month period.
Conversely, a failure to gain majority support would mean the automatic ouster of Johnson, and a quick election within the Conservative party to elect a new leader. That person would, in turn, become the new prime minister.
Finally, even if Boris Johnson survived the vote, he could choose to resign if he believed the margin of victory was not decisive enough. That was Margaret Thatcher’s fate in 1990.
Garret Martin, Senior Professorial Lecturer, Co-Director Transatlantic Policy Center, American University School of International Service