Boris Johnson set for Commons showdown over Dominic Cummings and coronavirus

Kelly C. Gamble

Coronavirus Article Bar with counter

Boris Johnson will face a 90-minute grilling today by the toughest committee in Parliament over his handling of the coronavirus crisis and a trip to Durham by his top aide, Dominic Cummings.

Mr Johnson has twice refused to appear before the parliamentary Liaison Committee, which is formed of the chairs of every other select committee, and includes some of the most formidable MPs, including former Conservative Cabinet ministers.

Today’s 4.30pm hearing comes amid five days of fury about Mr Cummings’ trip north, and growing speculation about phase two of the Government’s lockdown plans.

As polls suggest public support for the Prime Minister has plummeted over the Cummimgs saga and his own backbenchers call for the advisor’s resignation, today’s committee gives Mr Johnson a chance to win back key MPs and the country.

What is the parliamentary Liaison Committee? 

The Liaison Committee is the most senior of Parliament’s scrutiny committees. It is formed of the chairs of each of the other select committees, each of which takes charge of scrutiny for a different Government department.

Its purpose is to deal with the role of select committees, promote effective scrutiny of Government and choose committee reports for debates.

It questions the Prime Minister about policy, usually three times a year.

The Liaison Committee has been requesting to speak to the Prime Minister directly for months, and will this afternoon have the chance to ask him about various aspects of the coronavirus response.

For the purposes of the meeting, Mr Johnson is referred to as a “witness”. 

The meeting will take place virtually, and will be live-streamed here.

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Who is on the parliamentary Liaison Committee?

Each of the select committee chairs will be present this afternoon (albeit virtually), plus Sir Bernard Jenkin, who chairs the group.

Bernard Jenkin, Conservative. The veteran Tory backbencher was nominated as Liaison Committee chair by Downing Street, to much gnashing of teeth from colleagues. He is pro-Brexit, although has form with Dominic Cummings having tried and failed to get him out of Vote Leave early on.  He recently told House Magazine: “If Boris Johnson expects an easy ride, he’s nominated the wrong man.”

Clive Betts, Labour. Mr Betts is the Housing, communities and local government committee chairman, and has served in Parliament since 1992. In 2003 he was handed down a seven-day suspension from the House of Commons for for breaching the parliamentary code of conduct by helping his researcher in an attempt to mislead immigration officials.

Greg Clark, Conservative. The former Business Secretary was one of the 21 Tory rebels who had the whip removed for voting against the Government on Brexit last year. As chair of the Science and Tech Committee he has already been fairly damning of the response so far. Likely to press on with that. 

Yvette Cooper, Labour. The former Labour leadership contender and Home Affairs Select Committee chair has a reputation for tough questioning and a no-nonsense approach. Ms Cooper oversees scrutiny of the Home Office, so expect to hear questions about policing the lockdown and changes to border policy.

Stephen Crabb, Conservative. The Welsh affairs committee chairman finished last when he ran for the Tory leadership in 2016, and was rewarded with a job as pensions secretary, which he promptly resigned from in a “sexting” scandal.

Robert Halfon, Conservative. The Conservative Education Committee chair and ex-skills minister is one of the longest-standing blue collar Tory, who backed Dominic Cummings initially but later said he regretted this and called for him to “face the consequences”.  

Meg Hillier, Labour. The Public accounts committee chairwoman stood for Speaker of the Commons last year, promising to end bullying and harassment in Westminster, but came last with just 10 votes. She is a friend of neighbouring MP Diane Abbott and a former New Labour minister.

Simon Hoare, Conservative. The Northern Ireland committee chair is a friend of former Chancellor Sajid Javid who was forced out of his job during the reshuffle as part of a power play by Dominic Cummings. The Tory MP was one of the first to call for Cummings to go.  Likely to go hard on the PM for his support. 

Jeremy Hunt, Conservative. Former Health Secretary and one time leadership rival, Mr Hunt has been quietly critical in his new role as Health Committee chair so far. But while he said he thought Mr Cummings had broken the rules (three times) he was clear he didn’t think the adviser should go. Will probably spend more time probing the PM on details to do with the coronavirus response – but that won’t be an easy ride either.  

Darren Jones, Labour. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee chairman has already described the Prime Minister’s handling of the Dominic Cummings incident as “weak, weak, weak,” so expect some tough questioning from him this afternoon. 

Huw Merriman, Conservative. The Transport Committee chair has been calling for air bridges to get the industry back on its feet. He voted for a second referendum and a no-deal Brexit. Has criticised Dominic Cummings publicly in the past for his attacks on the BBC but so far has backed him on Durham-gate.  

Caroline Nokes, Conservative. The former Immigration Minister has been fairly vocal in her criticism of Dominic Cummings, although stopped short of calling for him to go. The Women and Equalities Committee chair can be quite arch and is likely to be firm with the PM.

Mel Stride, Conservative. The Treasury Committee chairman has been focused on the economic response to the pandemic so far, and he is likely to do so in today’s session. A former Treasury minister and Leader of the Commons who was sacked by Boris Johnson, he is unlikely to make life easy although the focus might not be on Mr Cummings. 

Stephen Timms, Labour. The Work and pensions committee chairman has years of experience as a minister in the New Labour governments, including as Chief Secretary to the Treasury under Tony Blair.

Pete Wishart, SNP. The Scottish affairs committee chairman is the only member of the committee not from either Labour or the Tories, and has been quick to criticise Mr Cummings and the Prime Minister’s handling of the saga over the last few days.

What will the committee ask about?

Today’s session has been split up into four 20minute sessions.

The first will be specifically about Dominic Cummings, where MPs are expected to pull apart aspects of Mr Cummings explanation for his trip to Durham.

Expect to hear specific questions about the advisor’s claim he drove to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight, and the extraordinary revelation Mr Johnson had no idea he was planning to leave the capital during the lockdown. 

The second 20 minutes will touch on SAGE, test and trace, PPE and care homes, with questions from Jeremy Hunt, the former Health Secretary whom Boris Johnson beat to the party leadership, and Greg Clark, a former Cabinet minister.

The remainder of the committee session will be about reopening the UK after lockdown. Expect to hear questions about the Government’s plans on specific sectors, from the MPs who are in charge of scrutiny for that area.

Has Mr Johnson faced the committee before?

No. The Liaison Committee is the only committee of MPs with the power to question the Prime Minister directly, but he has so far dodged its meetings.

Mr Johnson pulled out of a meeting the committee in October, to the fury of its chair, Sarah Wollaston.

Since then, Sir Bernard Jenkin has taken over as the head of the group, despite a cross-party attempt to block his appointment.

Downing Street nominated Mr Jenkin despite the fact he no longer chairs his own committee.

The chair is usually drawn from the committee’s existing membership.

No10 faced accusations that it was trying to soften the committee’s scrutiny after Mr Johnson refused to appear before it.

Sir Bernard has said there will be no “pulling punches” in this afternoon’s session.

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