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“Fury said to a mouse, That he met in the house, ‘Let us both go to law: I will prosecute you.”
Last year, in the wake of a series of sexual harrassment scandals and allegations, the Conservative Party published a new code of conduct that covers Tory MPs. They are expected to follow “the minimum standards of behaviour expected from anyone representing the Party as an elected or appointed official or office-holder”; “support equality of opportunity, diversity and inclusion”, and follow “the seven Nolan principles of public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.”
Furthermore, they must “be willing to challenge poor behaviour”; “lead by example to encourage and foster respect and tolerance”; “treat others in a professional and straightforward manner”; “act with honesty and probity and in a manner which upholds the reputation and values of the Conservative Party”; “not use their position to bully, abuse, victimise, harass or unlawfully discriminate against others”, and “take reasonable steps to ensure that people who wish to raise concerns about bullying, discrimination, harassment and/or victimisation by others feel able to do so”.
It is fair to say that these are wide-ranging criteria which provide grounds for wide-ranging complaints.
“Come, I’ll take no denial; We must have a trial: For really this morning I’ve nothing to do.”
So how are complaints assessed? The code says that “when we receive a formal complaint, we will investigate it in a timely and confidential manner”. There will then be an assessment by “someone with appropriate experience and no prior involvement in the complaint”. This investigating officer will then either dismiss it, or pass it on to “a panel consisting of no fewer than three people, appointed by the Party Chairman”. This panel must contain “at least one person nominated by the Chairman of the 1922 Committee”.
Having considered the complaint, the panel’s members must then “provide their findings to the Party Chairman, recommending the appropriate level of the Party at which the complaint should be resolved and/or dealt with according to the Party’s Constitution”. The code goes on to say that “the complaint may then be referred by the Chairman to the Leader and/or to the Board of the Conservative Party, who shall take such action as they see fit. This includes, but is not necessarily limited to, suspension of membership or expulsion from the Party”.
There is more than this in the relevant sections of the code, but it is a summary of its main elements.
“Said the mouse to the cur, ‘Such a trial, dear sir, With no jury or judge, would be wasting our breath.”
Let us now apply the code to Boris Johnson and his Daily Telegraph column of earlier this week. As this morning’s papers make clear, at least one claim that he has breached the code has been lodged with the Party. It follows that this complaint must be investigated in a “timely” manner – which implies a certain speed – before being dismissed or furthered. In either event, there will be press enquiries about the identity and qualifications of this investigating officer. But the media and others will clock the following features of the process in any event.
First, this officer will presumably be appointed, directly or indirectly, by the Party Chairman. Second, in the event of the complaint being pursued, there will be no ambiguity about who selects a panel to hear it: as we noted above, it will in these circumstances be “appointed by the Party Chairman” (although, interestingly, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee is entitled to nominate at least one member of it). Third, the Party Chairman can refer the complaint to the Leader – as well as to a board to which that leader is able to appoint as many members as she wishes.
Readers will see where all this is going.
“I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury,’ Said cunning old Fury; ‘I’ll try the whole cause, and condemn you to death.”
Not so long ago, complaints such as those made about Johnson’s column would either a) simply have been swept under the carpet by the powers-that-be or b) have been met by the suspension of the whip, if those powers thought they could get away with it. It was inevitable that such “establishment fixes” by “old boys’ clubs” operating “a magic circle” would be swept away – and no bad thing, either. That sunlight is the best disinfectant is the spirit of the age. The old informal understandings were bound to be modernised, reformed and codified.
But a moment’s thought will confirm that, if any complaint against Johnson is pursued, one lot of injustices risks simply being replaced by others – an illustration of the perils of hastily thrown-together codes. For if this happens, the Party Chairman who said that Johnson should apologise will, first, appoint the jury in the case: second, act on that jury’s findings and, perhaps third, refer them to the Party leader, who has already agreed with his view…and who will thus become the judge of the fate of a rival for her job, empowered by the code to bar him from a future leadership contest.
It is unlikely that, even in these extreme circumstances, Johnson would commission his learned friends – or perhaps his learned wife, a distinguished human rights barrister – to pursue the legal ramifications of such potential breaches of natural justice. (We aren’t lawyers here at ConservativeHome, but such a claim would surely be arguable.) After all, Julian Smith has the power to suspend or remove the whip from the former Foreign Secretary anyway, without all this procedural malarkey. And the Johnson case is ultimately about politics, not law.
None the less, the new Code of Conduct reveals yet another dimension of the net in which Brandon Lewis and Theresa May have entangled themselves in the Johnson case. Spooked by a weird combination of Islamist campaigning, Remainer point-scoring, real and justified Muslim fearfulness, virtue signalling, ignorance of the divisions within modern Islam, by double standards, the desire to score off Labour over anti-semitism, and the apparent incapacity to distinguish between the hijab and the burka, they are now damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
If they don’t ease the way for complaints about Johnson, having called on him to apologise, those whom they seek to appease will turn on them. If they do, they will open up consequences which they may not be able to control. At least one Cabinet Minister is gobsmacked by CCHQ and Downing Street’s mishandling of the case. Thanks to their overkill, we are now on day four of what would otherwise have been a two-day story. Truly, Alice in Wonderland sometimes has nothing on the Conservative Party.