In the perfect world that doesn’t exist, a Minister loses the whip, and is suspended from his job, if serious allegations are made against him. Parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS), rather than the party of which the Minister is a member, hears the case.
The Minister is made aware of the nature of the complaint against him. The media is told nothing other than that the Minister has been suspended from his job and has lost the whip, and another MP is brought in to do the job on a temporary basis (as is the case when a Minister is on pregnancy leave).
Crucially, these arrangements are fair to the complainant as well as to the Minister – because his identity is protected from the papers, who might otherwise pursue him and his family. As a rule, a serious allegation would not be one that is made by a third party.
Public culture has changed during the last 50 years from a Cavalier one, in which almost “anything goes”, to a Roundhead one – the age of “Me Too”. Much of the change is a consequence of the rise of women. On the whole, the change is for the better: for example, it is harder to cover up misconduct by MPs.
This puts the Conservative Party, like others, on the spot more frequently – and the position that it’s in is consequently a difficult one. The ICGS will sometimes refuse to consider a complaint on the ground that the alleged offence took place outside Parliament. So it was in the case of Chris Pincher. So it may be in the case of Conor Burns.
In these circumstances, the Party itself must investigate the claims. The position of the alleged offender takes us into a bit of a grey area. He is appointed as a Minister not by the Party leader, but by the Prime Minister (in effect). Since the two are usually the same person, the Prime Minister will also have the last word, politics being as it is, on whether to withdraw the whip.
This may not be at all easy – and I’m sympathetic to the Party as it seeks to handle a mass of allegations against different people in an age of disclosure rather than discretion. However, it doesn’t follow that Burns has been fairly treated. An allegation appears to have been made against him by a third party on the basis of an incident at last week’s Conservative conference.
The sensible course to take were the whips convinced that the claim was serious was to suspend Burns from the whip, which duly happened, and suspend him from his job, which didn’t. He was sacked rather than suspended – and was thus treated as being guilty, which he may or may not be, before the claim has been investigated. This offends natural justice.
The injustice stretches further if he has not formally been made aware of the claim against him, and if the process and timetable of investigation is unclear. It’s been suggested that Burns, who voted for Truss during the Tory leadership election, displeased her at the conference by implicitly criticising her record as Trade Secretary and talking up his then boss, Kemi Badenoch.
Whatever the ins and outs of these claims are, and regardless of the claims against Burns, there are practical implications for the Government. There are currently 13 independent MPs. None were elected as such. All have had the whip withdrawn by their respective parties.
Five of them are former Conservatives – Burns, Pincher, Tobias Ellwood, Rob Roberts and David Warburton. The whip has been withdrawn from them for reasons varying from missing a confidence vote (Ellwood) to allegations of sexual harrassment and drug misuse (Warburton).
Whatever the rights and wrong of each case may be, all of this reduces the Tory majority – now down from 80 at the general election to 69, which makes life harder for the Government in the Commons. And the suspended MPs can’t be relied upon to support Truss in the lobbies for obvious reasons.
It’s worth putting the claims against all MPs into perspective. On the one hand, only two per cent of all those who work in Parliament rang the ICGS’s hotline. Most who used it phoned to seek information, not to make a complaint. And the biggest single body of complaints registered were about House of Commons staff, not MPs.
On the other hand, 46 per cent of all complaints were upheld – and there will surely be genuine grievances which will have gone unreported. Incidentally, nine per cent of complaints about MPs were related to sexual misconduct. Eighty one per cent were about bullying and harassment.
Burns’ critics will say he has form. In 2020, he resigned as a Trade minister after the Standards Committee found that he used his position as an MP to intimidate a member of the public. It is hard to see on what basis he was returned to government by Boris Johnson a year later (other than that he was a prominent supporter of the then Prime Minister).
But that was then and now is now. And would be only fair both to all concerned for there to be a clear timetable for investigation, and for Burns to be made formally aware of the allegations against him if he hasn’t been already. If he’s found guilty, the whip might have to be withdrawn permanently, meaning that he couldn’t stand as a Conservarive at the next general election.
If he’s not, then he should be restored to his post as a Trade Minister forthwith. Suspension rather than sacking would apply in any decently operating workplace and it should have done to Burns too. Either way, the Party needs to think very hard about complaints from third parties, whatever may have happened in this case.