A senior minister appeared to pile pressure on the chair of an upcoming Partygate inquiry to stand down, as he questioned her suitability to conduct the investigation fairly.
Michael Ellis, the paymaster general, suggested Labour stalwart Harriet Harman should not lead the investigation into whether Boris Johnson misled parliament by repeatedly denying any Covid rules were broken at law-breaking parties in No 10.
Harman was lined up to chair the privilege committee’s investigation after its previous chair, Chris Bryant, recused himself for having been an avid critic of the prime minister during the seven-month Partygate saga, calling him a “proven liar” who “repeatedly lied to parliament”.
While the committee has a Conservative majority – with four Tory MPs, two from Labour and one from the SNP – Ellis sought to discredit the possibility it could be seen to handle the subject fairly.
The inquiry is seen as a major danger for Johnson, given deliberately misleading the Commons is said in the ministerial code to be an offence warranting resignation.
Harman was co-opted on to the committee earlier this week and is expected to serve as its chair for the duration of the inquiry, likely to begin within the next month and aim to issue a report and recommend any sanctions by the autumn.
But Tory MPs suggested she should not lead the investigation given past tweets Harman posted about Johnson’s behaviour.
In April 2022, the former chair and interim Labour leader wrote: “If u get Covid regs FPN u can either admit guilt or go to ct to challenge it. If PM and CX admit guilt, accepting that police right that they breached regs, then they are also admitting that they misled the House of Commons. Or are they going to challenge?”
Another post by Harman shared a blog by the former Labour press secretary Alastair Campbell, which argued Johnson “broke their own emergency laws”, “lied repeatedly” and “trashed the ministerial code”. Harman added: “And not just any old laws but those which were essential to protect even more people getting infected. These were laws to save lives that they broke!”
Andrew Murrison, a Conservative backbencher, asked Ellis in parliament on Thursday if he agreed “that those placed in a position of judgment over others must not have a previously stated position on the matter in question”.
Without Harman’s name having been mentioned, Ellis suggested he agreed that she was not a suitable chair, saying it was a “very good point”.
Hy het bygevoeg: “It is, natuurlik, an age-old principle of natural justice that no person should be a judge in their own court.
“Where an individual has given a view on the guilt or innocence of any person, they ought not to then sit in judgment on that person. I know that point he is referring to, and I have no doubt that the right honourable lady will consider that.”
A source on the privileges committee told the Guardian that Harman was “going nowhere”.