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Conservatives should end Privileges Committee attacks

John Baron MP
June 30, 2023

A number of issues have attracted MPs’ attention in recent weeks. The Russian invasion set in motion an uncertain chain of events which continue to cause huge damage to Ukraine but also unfold to the Kremlin’s disadvantage. The recent Wagner Group coup was predictable and indeed predicted, with the outcome in the balance until some sort of last-minute compromise was brokered. Two decades of Putin’s authoritarian rule, coupled with the stresses of a country at war, have hollowed out the Russian state.

Of particular concern to the Putin régime will be the apparent popularity of Yevgeny Prigozhin amongst the public and security forces. In part this is because he has successfully cast himself as a turbo-patriot, whose troops pulled off the only Russian victory over the winter, but also because he is more prepared to speak the truth. In the early stages of the coup, his online statements that the invasion of Ukraine was based on lies, that it has been fought badly and that casualties are far higher than reported, clearly resonated with a Russian public who can see the holes in the official narrative. No-one believes Putin’s latest line that the coup has made Russia stronger.

The importance of truth-telling has also been at the forefront at Westminster in recent weeks. The Committee of Privileges delivered their long-anticipated report into whether the former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, knowingly misled Parliament during his statements in the Commons over the Partygate revelations. It was for this reason that I withdrew my support from Boris Johnson as Prime Minister in May 2022, and encouraged him to stand down.

It was disappointing that some of my Conservative colleagues decided not to accept the report’s recommendations, and even attacked the Committee for doing the job that Parliament itself had asked of them. The motions establishing the Committee and its chairmanship were passed when Boris Johnson was Prime Minister, and passed unopposed. If MPs wanted to intervene, this would have been the time to do so – not after the report had been published.

It was disappointing that some of my Conservative colleagues decided not to accept the report’s recommendations Quote

In voting to endorse the report, which MPs overwhelmingly did, we were taking an important step in reaffirming the centrality of truthfulness and accuracy to our Parliamentary democracy. This system depends on Ministers telling the truth and being accurate with facts and figures at the Despatch Box, and it would be impossible for MPs to carry out their key function of holding the Government to account if we could not trust what we were hearing. The Committee of Privileges is the only way the Commons can protect itself when faced with an MP who does not tell the truth.

The reason the partygate revelations cut through so strongly with the public was because the rest of us went through real pain during the lockdowns at the instigation and compulsion of the-then Prime Minister. To find that unlawful gatherings were taking place at the heart of government was bad enough, and it was intolerable when the-then Prime Minister failed to be truthful to the Commons about them afterwards. Endorsing the report’s findings is an important step towards remedying this situation and restoring the central importance of truthfulness to our system.

Another big event this month has been the surprise decision of the Bank of England to raise interest rates by 50 basis points. This will cause real financial pain to households across the country, and is a consequence of central banks’ failure worldwide to respond quickly and effectively to the rise of inflation. Put simply, they have been asleep at the wheel and are guilty of a dereliction of duty.

When serving as Chancellor, the current Prime Minister raised eyebrows when in his budget speech in March 2021 he raised the spectre of inflation, a theme he continued to raise later in the following months. However, control of interest rates is in the hands of the independent Bank of England. There is little appetite to change this setup, not least because it gives confidence to the markets that the Government is not going to start interfering for political ends. Nevertheless, as the government of the day invariably finds, the public still holds them responsible for their rising mortgage payments.

It is good news that the Bank has announced it is conducting a review into how it forecasts inflation and is trying to bring its modelling more up to date. The forecasts earlier this year that inflation would come down sharply and quickly appear to be wide of the mark, and improved modelling could better inform economic policy, at both the Bank and No 11.

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John Baron is the Conservative MP for Basildon and Billericay and a former Shadow Health Minister.

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