Could the PM be impeached like Donald Trump?

by Nick Kent | 27.09.2019

With Donald Trump facing possible impeachment over his conduct in office as President of the United States, could something similar be used against Boris Johnson?

Impeachment is a process by which a parliament can charge and try a person, invariably one holding high office, with the most serious offences, such as high treason. Before modern laws on politicians’ conduct, it was the only way to charge senior office holders in Britain with misconduct. In active use from 1376 to 1806, it was most famously used to try (unsuccessfully) the former Governor-General of Bengal, Warren Hastings.

Although long considered to be obsolete, an attempt was made to impeach Tony Blair in 2004. A motion tabled by 23 MPs, including Johnson, called for a committee to examine whether there were: “grounds to impeach the Rt Hon Tony Blair on charges of gross misconduct in his advocacy of the case for war against Iraq and in his conduct of policy in connection with that war”. The motion was never debated.  

Johnson’s case against Blair was all about the importance of trust. The problem, he argued, wasn’t so much that Blair had lied (although his facts were wrong) but, “that he used all his lawyerly arts, and all the trust that is naturally reposed in his office, to communicate to the public a vast untruth”. It is easy to see why critics today, such as Plaid Cymru leader Liz Saville-Roberts, want to throw that back at the prime minister. 

In reality, the UK is profoundly different to the US and Johnson isn’t going to be impeached.  Impeachment, in the old days, involved the accused being tried in the House of Lords with the peers reaching their verdict by voting. Such a procedure wouldn’t meet the due process requirement of modern justice. It would also breach human rights standards. Other mechanisms, such as the offence of misconduct in public office, or for the use of inflammatory language, the Public Order Act, would be likely to be more effective.

Contempt of Parliament

But that doesn’t mean that Boris Johnson isn’t at risk from attempts by MPs to hold him to account. Before its unlawful suspension, the Commons passed a motion requiring ministers to release all documents and other information relating to prorogation. 

No. 10 declined to comply, arguing that to do so would breach various constitutional and legislative norms (because the House had demanded to see the private communications of certain officials and ministers). As a result, it is possible that the Prime Minister and others could be accused of being in contempt of parliament.

A contempt of parliament is “any act or omission which obstructs or impedes either House of Parliament in the performance of its functions” (Erskine May). Where such a contempt is alleged it is usually investigated by the Committee of Privileges and if proved, a motion is put before the House. Recent examples include the refusal of Dominic Cummings to appear before the Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee.  

Cummings was merely “admonished” for his contempt but ministers, including the Prime Minister, could find themselves the subject of censure motions which would reduce or remove their salary or even have their membership of the House suspended for a period. The most serious sanction available to the Commons is expulsion; it was last used in this kind of case in 1947 when a Labour MP was expelled but it certainly isn’t obsolete. 

Getting a majority of MPs to support Johnson’s expulsion would be hard and the time it would take to hold a committee of inquiry problematic. But suspending the Prime Minister for two or three weeks if he were found guilty of contempt is a very real possibility. Given the absence of a government majority, Johnson would be wise not to provoke MPs into action.

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Edited by James Earley

Categories: Brexit, UK Politics

One Response to “Could the PM be impeached like Donald Trump?”

  • This looks like one of those cases of being careful what you wish for, or at least when you pull the trigger on it.
    If Parliament were to suspend a sitting PM, do we have a clear ‘line of succession’ for who covers the job (and who gets bumped up to cover their role, and so on)? Or would it kick off as big a round of time-consuming infighting as if he’d resigned? For all Johnson’s problems, there are worse options waiting in the wings.
    Something to keep on the back burner for later, perhaps, but a probably unnecessary distraction in the face of the current deadline.