Keir Starmer – 2022 Speech on Referring Boris Johnson to the Committee of Privileges

The speech made by Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, in the House of Commons on 22 April 2022.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I beg to move,

That this House

(1) notes that, given the issue of fixed penalty notices by the police in relation to events in 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, assertions the Rt hon Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip has made on the floor of the House about the legality of activities in 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office under Covid regulations, including but not limited to the following answers given at Prime Minister’s Questions: 1 December 2021, that “all guidance was followed in No. 10”, Official Report vol. 704, col. 909; 8 December 2021 that “I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken”, Official Report vol. 705, col. 372; 8 December 2021 that “I am sickened myself and furious about that, but I repeat what I have said to him: I have been repeatedly assured that the rules were not broken”, Official Report vol. 705, col. 372 and 8 December 2021 “the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times”, Official Report vol. 705, col. 379, appear to amount to misleading the House; and

(2) orders that this matter be referred to the Committee of Privileges to consider whether the Rt hon Member’s conduct amounted to a contempt of the House, but that the Committee shall not begin substantive consideration of the matter until the inquiries currently being conducted by the Metropolitan Police have been concluded.

The motion seeks to defend the simple principle that honesty, integrity and telling the truth matter in our politics. That is not a principle that I or the Labour party have a special claim to. It is a British principle. It is a principle that has been cherished by Conservatives for as long as their party has existed. It is embraced by Unionist and nationalist parties alike and still guides members from every political party in this House.

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con)

I lost my mother to covid in the first lockdown. It was a very painful experience because she was in a hospital bed and, as we obeyed the rules, we could not be by her side when she passed. I have made my disquiet known to the Prime Minister a couple of times, and he has taken that on board. I am deeply unhappy about how No. 10 performed over the period in question. However, I suggest to the right hon. and learned Member that it is perfectly natural in this country to weigh all the evidence before deciding on intent. As the central issue is whether the Prime Minister misled Parliament, does he agree that, in us all accepting that the matter should be referred to the Privileges Committee, that Committee needs to weigh all the evidence before coming to a decision, and that that includes the Sue Gray report?

Mr Speaker

Order. May I say to Members that interventions are meant to be short? If you are on the list to speak and you intervene—I know that the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) is not and would not want to be as he has made his speech—you will go down the list.

Keir Starmer

I am sorry for the loss in the hon. Member’s family. We all send our condolences. I know how difficult it has been for so many during this period. In relation to the substantive intervention, I have two points, which I will develop later. First, there is already a clear case before the House: the Prime Minister said “no…rules were broken”, and 50 fines for breaking the rules and the law have already been issued, so there is already a reasonable case. Secondly—I understand the sentiment behind the intervention—if the motion is passed, the Committee will not begin its substantive work until the police investigations are complete, so it will have all the evidence before it, one way or the other, to come to a view. That is within the body of the motion and is the right way; the way it should work. I hope that addresses the concerns raised.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), many of us in the Chamber have lost loved ones in the last period of time and feel greatly aggrieved that we have not had our day in court, if that is perhaps the way to put it. We feel the need to have justice seen for all those who have lost loved ones—those who passed away and whom we miss greatly. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman feel that, when it comes to justice, while we do need to see all the evidence, there must be accountability in the process, and accountability means that people have to answer for their actions?

Keir Starmer

Again, I express my sadness at the loss that the hon. Member and his family have endured. I was particularly struck—I think we all were—by how he spoke about that in this House just a few months ago.

On the substantive point, which is the point of the motion, this is about honesty, integrity and telling the truth in this place. It is an important principle, and one that we all share—as I say, I do not claim it as a Labour party principle—because we know the importance of it. That is why it is a matter for the House to consider. But it is a principle under attack, because the Prime Minister has been accused of repeatedly, deliberately and routinely misleading the House over parties held in Downing Street during lockdown.

That is a serious allegation. If it is true, it amounts to contempt of Parliament. It is not, and should never be, an accusation made lightly. Nor should we diminish the rights of Members to defend each other from that accusation. But the Prime Minister’s supporters do not seek to do that. Instead, many of them seek simply to dismiss its importance. They say, “There are worse crimes,” “He didn’t rob a bank”, “He only broke the rules for 10 minutes” and, “It was all a long time ago.” Every time one of those arguments is trotted out, the status of this House is gradually eroded and our democracy becomes a little weaker. The convention that Parliament must not be misled and that, in return, we do not accuse each other of lying are not curious quirks of this strange place but fundamental pillars on which our constitution is built, and they are observed wherever parliamentary democracy thrives. With them, our public debate is elevated. When Members assume good faith on behalf of our opponents, we can explore, test and interrogate our reasonable disagreements about how we achieve our common goals. Ultimately, no matter which Benches we sit on, no matter which Whip we follow, fundamentally we are all here for one reason: to advance the common goals of the nations, of the peoples, that make up our United Kingdom.

Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)

I am grateful to the Leader of the Opposition for giving way. He mentioned some of the arguments around, “Well, it was just nine minutes.” I met a woman, the daughter of a serviceman who lost his life the week before that birthday party. She said to me, “What I wouldn’t give for just nine more minutes with him.” I congratulate the right hon. and learned Gentleman on the way he is rising above party politics here. To diminish nine minutes as just anything diminishes us all across both sides of the House. Would he not agree?

Keir Starmer

I am grateful for that intervention, because it goes to the heart of the matter. Some have tried to suggest equivalence between these fixed penalty notices and speeding. That just does not understand the enormity of the difference. It is very rare that the whole nation goes through something together—a trauma together, that was covid. There are awful cases of funerals, of weddings that were missed, of parents who did not see the birth of their children. They are awful cases, but I think almost every family was marked during this period, including my own, by things we did not do that we would have liked to have done—usually visiting elderly parents and seeing children. There was a huge sense of guilt that we did not do it, including in my own family: guilt that because we followed the rules, we did not do what we thought was actually right by our elderly relatives. That is why it hurts so much. That is why anybody trying to say, “This is just like a speeding ticket” does not understand what this goes to politically and emotionally.

Going back to the principles, I want this debate to be about the principles, because that is where I think the debate should be. The Committee will be charged, if the motion goes through, with determining whether there was any misleading. But this is about the principles we all care about. That is why I think everybody should simply vote for the motion this evening to uphold those principles. Those principles, that we do not mislead the House and in return we do not call each other liars in this House, ensure that we make good decisions and avoid bad ones. It is what makes our democracy grow in ways that reflect the hopes and tackle the fears of those we represent. It is what makes our democracy thrive. It is what makes this House thrive. It is what makes Britain thrive.

Mr Speaker, we do not have to look far to see what happens when that faith is lost and there is no hope of reason resolving disagreements. When nations are divided, when they live in different worlds with their own truths and their own alternative facts, democracy is replaced by an obsession with defeating the other side. Those we disagree with become enemies. The hope of learning and adapting is lost. Politics becomes a blood sport rather than a quest to improve lives; a winner-takes-all politics where, inevitably, everyone loses out.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)

The Leader of the Opposition was big-hearted enough to say that he unwittingly misled the House. I am sure he would agree that it is very important to stick to the convention that we do not call each other liars, and there is a good reason for that. Two of our colleagues have been killed and there have been a lot of attacks on colleagues. In this debate, can we just accept that everybody here is an honourable Member and that when they speak here, although they may unwittingly mislead the House, they think that they were, for instance, abiding with the rules? Can we tone down the whole nature of this debate?

Keir Starmer

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention; I will try to keep within those parameters and elevate this debate to the principles that we apply when we debate in this Chamber.

Mr Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab)

I am grateful for what my right hon. and learned Friend said about the fact that we do not want Opposition Members to have a monopoly on truth. He makes a very important point, but does he agree that the fundamental point is about whether we as Members of Parliament are fit to hold our powers to hold people to account or whether politics will always get in the way? It was disturbing to hear that Conservative Members might vote against the motion because a Labour Chair was involved, and it is disappointing that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) felt that he had to step down. The principle of whether we either have an independent process or do it ourselves is very important.

Keir Starmer

That is very important. We have these procedures to hold us all to the rules of the House, and it is very important that they are applied in the right way with the right principles.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green)

The right hon. and learned Member is making a very powerful speech. On procedures, does he agree that there is a bigger point about Parliament’s governance structures? Our whole system of checks and balances is completely out of date. It is beyond ludicrous that the arbiter of whether the ministerial code has been broken is the person who is accused of breaking it—in this instance, the Prime Minister. Does the Leader of the Opposition agree that we also need a wider look at those governance structures, which are simply not fit for purpose?

Keir Starmer

I am grateful for that intervention, because it raises a very serious point. A lot of our conventions, rules and traditions are based on the principle of honour and on the fact that Members of this House would not, other than inadvertently, mislead the House. That is why the rules are set, and they are set on that proposition. If a Member of the House—whoever that is—does not abide by those honourable principles, we have that stress test of the rules.

Several hon. Members rose—

Keir Starmer

I will take one more intervention and then I will make some progress.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab)

I understand completely the point made by the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) about toning down the rhetoric—[Interruption.] I understand that position, but let me make this point, because I have known him over the years: we cannot tone down the seriousness of this matter. I was in the Prime Minister’s constituency earlier this week; it is the neighbouring constituency to mine and we are campaigning for the London Borough of Hillingdon in the election. There is some shift in the vote from Tory to Labour because of this issue, but that is not the significant point. What is significant is the number of people we found who were totally disillusioned, who had had enough of the system and who were blaming the system itself. That is what we are fighting and campaigning for. We are campaigning to restore the credibility of our country’s democratic processes.

Keir Starmer

That is a really important and powerful point, because if we do not pass this motion and take this opportunity to restate the principles, we are all complicit in allowing the standards to slip. We are all complicit in allowing the public to think that we are all the same, that nobody tells the truth and that there are alternative sets of facts.

Jacob Young (Redcar) (Con)

Will the right hon. and learned Member give way?

Keir Starmer

I will in a minute; I have given way a lot and I want to make some progress, but I will try to come back to the hon. Member.

Felicity Buchan (Kensington) (Con)

Will the right hon. and learned Member give way?

Keir Starmer

I will make some progress and try to come back to hon. Members when I can.

The conventions and the traditions that we are debating are not an accident. They have been handed down to us as the tools that protect Britain from malaise, extremism and decline. That is important, because the case against the Prime Minister is that he has abused those tools, that he has used them to protect himself rather than our democracy, and that he has turned them against all that they are supposed to support. Government Members know that the Prime Minister has stood before the House and said things that are not true, safe in the knowledge that he will not be accused of lying because he cannot be. He stood at the Dispatch Box and point-blank denied that rule breaking took place when it did, and as he did so he was hoping to gain extra protection from our good faith that no Prime Minister would ever deliberately mislead this House. He has used our faith and our conventions to cover up his misdeeds.

Mike Wood (Dudley South) (Con)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Keir Starmer

I will just finish this point. After months of denials, absurd claims that all the rules were followed and feigned outrage at his staff discussing rule breaking, we now know that the law was broken. We know that the Prime Minister himself broke the law, and we know that he faces the possibility of being found to have broken it again and again and again.

As the police investigation is ongoing, we do not need to make final judgment on the Prime Minister’s contempt of Parliament today. When the time comes, the Prime Minister will be able to make his case. He can put his defence—of course he can. He can make his case as his defence that his repeated misleading of Parliament was inadvertent; or that he did not understand the rules that he himself wrote, and his advisers at the heart of Downing Street either did not understand the rules or misled him when they assured him that they were followed at all times; or that he thought he was at a work event, even while the empty bottles piled up. He can make those defences when the time comes.

Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con) rose—

Keir Starmer

I will give way in just a minute.

We already know that he has a case to answer. The Prime Minister said that no rules were broken, but more than 50 fines for breaching the rules and the law have now been issued, including to the Prime Minister. Anybody who denies that simple fact has their head in the sand or has given up any interest in the truth and in the traditions of our nation in order to prop up a lawbreaking Prime Minister.

Today’s motion would refer the matter to the Privileges Committee, a Committee that has a Government majority. No one can say that the Prime Minister is not being judged by his peers. The Committee would investigate the Prime Minister for contempt only once the police had concluded their investigation. No one can say that there is prejudice to the rest of the inquiry. And, of course, any findings the Committee comes to and any sanctions it might propose would then come back before the House as a whole, so no one can say that it is too soon for the House to decide. It is a system of self-governance, and it should be, because with the great privilege that comes from sitting in this place comes the great responsibility to protect the conventions that underpin our democracy.

Jacob Young

On conventions, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that language is equally important? Will he therefore take this opportunity to distance himself from the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who said that he wanted to lynch another hon. Member, and from the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), who is sitting right next to him and who called Members on this side of the House Tory scum? He should distance himself from them.

Keir Starmer

That is a shame. I thought that we were having a reasonably serious debate—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) needs to sit down. In fairness to the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), he has taken a lot of interventions, but I certainly do not need her standing up and waiting to catch somebody’s eye.

Keir Starmer

If the debate descends into a shouting match, Mr Speaker, we lose the principle that is there to defend all of us, including all the Conservative Members. We are not claiming a principle to support those on the Opposition Benches and not those on the Government Benches; it is a principle that supports us all. If we fail—

Sir William Cash rose—

Keir Starmer

I will take the intervention from the hon. Gentleman.

Sir William Cash

The Leader of the Opposition has just said, quite rightly, that this issue affects everyone in the House. Does he accept that at this moment there is a complication, namely that the Committee on Standards is conducting a report, under the aegis of Sir Ernest Ryder’s recommendations, which raises questions about whether a fair trial and natural justice are possible at this juncture? That is currently under discussion in the House. The same rule applies with regard to the question of the Committee of Privileges, which has already been criticised. I was on the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, and I can assure the Leader of the Opposition that serious problems arise in relation to the need to rectify those omissions in procedural fairness.

Keir Starmer

I have heard the hon. Gentleman put his case on natural justice a number of times, and of course he has every right to do so. I disagree, but that is the point of the debates we have. However, a debate about natural justice, or due process, need not hold up the current process. This motion can and should be passed today, and everyone should support its being passed today to uphold the principles to which I have referred. There is a discussion to be had about natural justice—an interesting debate, in which we will take different views—but it need not hold up this process.

Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is entirely correct to prosecute the case on the basis of principle, but there is still an amendment on the Order Paper, even if the Government will not move it, which would indicate that not everyone in the House shares his view of the importance of these principles. Does he share my view that at the conclusion of this debate there should be a Division, so that we know where every single Member of this House stands on the principles? At a time like this, on an issue like this, there should be no hiding place for anyone.

Keir Starmer

I agree. We have a duty here today, in relation to this motion and these principles. If we fail in that duty, the public will not forgive and forget, because this will be the Parliament that failed—failed to stand up for honesty, integrity and telling the truth in politics; failed to stand up to a Prime Minister who seeks to turn our good faith against us; and failed to stand up for our great democracy.

It is not just the eyes of our country that are upon us. There will also be the judgment of future generations, who will look back at what Members of this great House did when our customs were tested, when its traditions were pushed to breaking point, and when we were called to stand up for honesty, for integrity and for truth.