Inside the Liaison Committee as senior MPs prepare to grill Boris Johnson on coronavirus and Dominic Cummings
Boris Johnson will face questions from the Liaison Committee this afternoon
Boris Johnson will appear before the powerful Liaison Committee for the first time this afternoon, to face questions over his handling of coronavirus, the economy and Dominic Cummings. Committee chairs past and present talk to Sebastian Whale about getting the truth out of the PM
The Liaison Committee has had to wait almost a year for Boris Johnson’s first appearance as prime minister, but when MPs finally get their chance this afternoon the timing could hardly have been better.
Johnson has previously been accused of dodging scrutiny after pulling out of a scheduled appearance in front of the powerful group of MPs – the only parliamentary committee with the authority to call the PM as a witness – last autumn. “Boris Johnson should have had three or four liaison committees under his belt by now. He has not got any,” one committee chair laments.
But as the prime minister appears at 16:00 this afternoon he is facing battles on multiple fronts, not least over the actions of his most senior advisor, Dominic Cummings. MPs and the public are demanding answers about Cummings’ actions amid calls for him to quit, but Johnson will also face questions over plans to ease the lockdown, the worrying economic figures that signify a deep recession to come, and his handling of the crisis so far.
Moves to quell the mounting dissent over Cummings’ future have failed. Despite his remarkable press conference in the garden at Downing Street on Monday, anger among Tory MPs has not abated. "It’s just been atrocious," says one particularly irate backbencher. "The whole affair is hugely damaging for the Government."
The proceedings this afternoon will be overseen by the committee’s new chair, Sir Bernard Jenkin. Though he no longer chairs a relevant parliamentary body, Jenkin was controversially selected by No10 to head up the Committee earlier this month, leading to accusations that he would be a “patsy” for the Whips. “He’s allowed himself to be put in a position where, rightly or wrongly, the perception of him is that he’s a mere client of the Government,” one of his Tory colleagues says. Another notes sardonically: “The ‘Bernard Jenkin job scheme’ is a remarkably successful one.”
Speaking to The House, Jenkin says he is “answerable to the committee and the House” and is “not beholden to anyone else”. If the PM and the Whips thought he would give the government an easy ride, he adds, then “they have nominated the wrong man”.
Indeed, Jenkin is likely to give the PM a hard time over Cummings, of whom he is not exactly a fan; in 2016, the Tory MP was involved in botched plans to remove him as campaign director of Vote Leave. “There is no love lost between Bernard Jenkin and Dominic Cummings,” notes Sarah Wollaston, the former MP who previously chaired the Liaison Committee. “I don’t necessarily think [Boris Johnson] is going to get an easy ride, even if they did change the way the chair was appointed.”
The Liaison Committee no longer has any merit. It is appointed by the prime minister
Despite this, fresh concerns about Jenkin’s chairmanship have already surfaced. Opposition and Tory MPs have accused him of conspiring with party whips to ensure that vocal critics of the PM, including senior Conservative backbencher Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, will not be included in the session.
Among those also notable by their absence is Chris Bryant, the chair of the Standards Committee, and Tobias Ellwood, the Defence Select Committee chair.
Sceptical Tory MPs note that Tugendhat and Bryant have been critics of Johnson, while Ellwood pipped Jenkin to the post of Defence Committee chair earlier this year. One backbencher accuses Jenkin of “sucking up the whips”, adding: “It demonstrates that the Liaison committee no longer has any merit. It is appointed by the prime minister.”
The decision over who will take part was made unanimously by members of an internal working group – Sarah Champion, Hilary Benn, Greg Clark, Pete Wishart and Karen Bradley – who met Jenkin last week to discuss the format for the 90-minute session. To the chagrin of insiders, the agenda was then leaked to Sam Coates of Sky News.
A total of 15 MPs, including Jenkin, will ask questions. First, they will consider the fallout from Cummings and issues pertaining to ‘Who is in charge of what?’ in regards to coronavirus. Focus will then turn to science, testing, tracking and tracing, followed by the reopening of schools, the lack of women in government decision-making and inequalities from Covid-19, before finishing with the impact on the economy, business, and the plans for recovery. As a result, MPs who chair committees on areas such as education, health and local government will all feature.
Wollaston, Jenkin’s predecessor, says choosing which of the more than thirty MPs eligible to participate was always a sensitive task. “It was put to me that being chair of the Liaison was a bit like herding tigers, not herding cats,” she explains. While chair, a record was kept of who had featured in previous meetings, and decisions were based on the key subject areas of the day. “We did try and balance that, but it was always something that caused a certain amount of tension, because every committee chair wants to be there,” she says.
Speaking before the participants had been announced, Wollaston said she had expected Tugendhat to feature given the international permutations of coronavirus, such as China’s handling of the Wuhan outbreak.
In the shape of Johnson, MPs will have their work cut out. The former journalist has honed his skills over years of television interviews and alike. To pin him down, MPs believe when it comes to questions, size does matter.
“Any nuance to a question allows for greater exposition in an answer. So, the trick is short questions,” a committee chair, who is not attending the session, advises. “It is helpful to have a flow diagram of yes and nos, or indeed equivocation. If you’ve got an objective of getting a certain answer, and he doesn’t want to give a certain answer, you need to have a map in your mind at the very least as to how you’re going to get there.”
Wollaston agrees: “You get more out of it with short pithy questions rather than long ones.”
Angus MacNeil, the chair of the International Trade committee, who is also not taking part, argues: “I would encourage all chairs who are there to not let him ramble. Interrupt him. Theresa May loved to ramble and I interrupted her.”
Jenkin, for his part, has been clear about his preference for a more gentle approach over “gotcha” questions. “I’ve watched other committees sometimes go for the ‘gotcha’ questions and going in for the kill and this actually inhibits the witnesses from being open and transparent,” he explains, saying his tactic is to “create an atmosphere where people feel able to put more truth on the table”.
I find if I over-practice, it becomes wooden. You’ve got to be spontaneous – and interrupt, interrupt, interrupt
As for priority areas, MacNeil says: “The most important and overriding aim is finding out who decided to end community testing and when. The other thing of course would be Dominic Cummings.”
Wollaston, who chaired the Liaison Committee from 2017-2019, says Downing Street will have plans to drown out any potential negative news lines. “No 10 is very good at scuppering it,” she says. She cites the sacking of Gavin Williamson as defence secretary in May 2019 by Theresa May, which took place soon after a meeting of the committee. “What that meant was that all of the news agenda was on Gavin Williamson being sacked. Quite often, they will have something up their sleeve that they can pull out as they’re leaving and not talk about it during the committee,” she says.
Prior to a session, MPs would break away into groups of around three or four people to work out strategies and to ensure their questions do not overlap. “It is important to prepare and be clear about what you want to get out of the sessions. It’s important that it’s not just used as a grandstanding opportunity,” says Wollaston.
MacNeil says while preparation is key, you must leave room for manoeuvre. “I find if I over practice, it would become wooden, so you’ve got to be spontaneous and interrupt, interrupt, interrupt,” he says. “They thrive on you being deferential, and seeing not Boris, but the prime minister. He’s an MP like you; treat him like such.”
One committee chair who is not involved believes the session will not illuminate much. “It will dwell on much of the things that we’ve been going over this weekend. And, therefore, it won’t be satisfactory to anybody,” they say.
While a furore over the choice of participants has proved a distraction – and is likely to rumble for future sessions – Johnson’s first appearance at the Liaison committee is nonetheless still a crucial opportunity for MPs to hold the prime minister to account. Given the fraught nature of events, it could not come at a more opportune moment.