Mark Bennister considers Boris Johnson’s appearance before the House of Commons Liaison Committee on 27 May.
Liaison Committee: A Prime Ministerial Performance?
Dr Mark Bennister, Senior Lecturer in Politics, University of Lincoln
In 2015, Boris Johnson lost out to Mary Beard in a duel over the classics. Beard successfully championed the Romans over the Greeks. It is worth noting the words of the young Roman orator Cicero:
Personally I am very nervous when I begin to speak. Every time I make a speech I feel I am submitting to judgement, not only about my ability but my character and honour.
Following Boris Johnson’s first appearance in front of the Liaison Committee on Wednesday 27 May, focusing on the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, he may reflect on being having been submitted to such judgement. Indeed, the timing couldn’t have been worse for him, coming so soon after the Dominic Cummings affair broke.
There is a performative element to these prime ministerial appearances, however infrequent they may be. As Marc Geddes explains in his excellent book, Parliament is theatre with the front and back stage as political spaces on which actors perform. With the scene set (albeit virtually), how to assess the performance?
The Build Up
The House of Commons Liaison Committee has had a difficult birth in the 2019 Parliament; it took 61 days, and a row over who would be chair, to be re-established. Containing all select committee chairs, it is an unwieldly and disparate group, but it does have one important role – scrutinising the Prime Minister up to 3 times a year. This Liaison Committee session was the first with any Prime Minister since May 2019. Boris Johnson had avoided scheduled sessions in September and October last year. The first time the unlawful prorogation of Parliament got in the way and the second time Parliament dissolved for the general election. In exchanges with the previous Chair, Sarah Wollaston, he had demonstrated an obvious reluctance to appear. With only a single statement on COVID 19 to the House and a handful of PMQs, parliamentary scrutiny had clearly not been a priority for this Prime Minister. By engineering the Brexiter Sir Bernard Jenkin as Chair (Jenkin had lost out in his bid to become Defence Chair), the government also faced accusations of micro-managing the Committee.
There have been 37 sessions with the PM since 2002, when Tony Blair first agreed to appear, reasoning that it would avoid appearances in front of any other committee. Initial sessions were too long, had too many questions and too many questioners. Since then the sessions have become more focused with less participants. Still the sessions rarely gained much attention from journalists and were regarded as not too taxing for a competent Prime Minister. However, in the midst of a pandemic and an emergent party political crisis (over Cummings), one can imagine it was the last place Johnson wanted to be. Adding to the pressure on the Chair not to be a government ‘patsy’, a couple of ‘excluded’ Conservative members went public plus the order of questions for the session was leaked. With 37 members, the number of actual participants in the sessions has varied between 14 and 16, which is certain to upset some. In this case the exclusion of not only the Chairs of Defence, Foreign Affairs (Conservatives and potential critics of the Prime Minister, Tobias Ellwood and Tom Tugendhat), but also International Development, meant the global dimension to the pandemic would not be tackled.
Performers, according to Geddes, need to interpret the social norms, values, etiquette, expectations and accepted modes of behaviour associated with the situation, which requires practical judgements as well as tacit knowledge (my emphasis). The stage (albeit virtual) was one for the Prime Minister to demonstrate such judgement and knowledge. The Prime Minister was in Downing Street, the Chair in a Commons Committee room with Committee members on video link. Johnson looked rather uncomfortable; his eyes often flitted to his right as if seeking support from an advisor in the wings. He has conducted few public video calls and it showed, while the Chairs had experience of such sessions from their own committees. Yet Johnson should also be used to such interrogation, having given evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee when Foreign Secretary. His appearances before the GLA as London Mayor would also have provided experience to draw on.
Liaison Committee sessions provide a different type of parliamentary arena in which to assess and evaluate prime ministerial style and performance. Blair was confident and dismissive, Brown over prepared, Cameron rather insouciant, May taciturn. But each demonstrated a seriousness and command of broad policy. After all this is a chance to demonstrate that you are in charge of your brief, have a plan, and have full command of the detail. Prime Ministers have regarded appearances here as much easier than at PMQs, occurring infrequently and usually with much less attention. So how did Johnson perform? It is not his natural environment. There were no ministers to defer to, or supportive backbenchers to help out. Johnson tried to be genial, overly pleasant to Treasury Chair Mel Stride, whom he had sacked. He was polite to SNP’s Pete Wishart in a vain attempt to draw the sting from his attacks. He had a mantra on the Cummings affair, desperate to shut the matter down.
The atmosphere in these sessions is less partisan, but more forensic. Members get around 6-8 minutes each for exchanges. Short questions allow more time to develop a discourse and press on detail. Unlike a statement to the House or PMQs, the power relationship is reversed. This was evident in exchanges with Greg Clarke (another former minister), when short probing questions exposed that Johnson does not read scientific papers and he couldn’t explain why the UK had a 2m social distancing policy, out of step with the rest of the world. It was also evident in an exchange with Caroline Nokes (another former minister, sacked by Johnson) over the impact of the pandemic on women, during which he totally misunderstood the question and then struggled with his replies (what happened to his briefing here?). These MPs are not the supporting cast as in Blair’s day, but lead actors in their own right. So, Jeremy Hunt – former Health Secretary and challenger for the Tory leadership – becomes inquisitor.
While the newspaper sketch writers complain that the sessions are boring and rarely deliver knockout blows, on several occasions the sessions have proved to be an important and timely accountability mechanism. Wednesday’s performance was indeed one of these. The Committee probed and challenged the PM, exposing his lack of preparation (‘are you telling me that this is you WITH preparation?’), policy knowledge and extracting commitments from a clearly flustered PM. He stumbled into calling self-isolation ‘captivity’, biosecurity he called ‘biodiversity’, and admitted to not knowing what ‘no recourse to public funds meant,’ in an exchange with Stephen Timms. He attempted to distance himself from policy decisions, shifted the blame on capacity (to questions from Jeremy Hunt), and claimed he had been ‘forbidden from announcing any more targets and deadlines.’
The session demonstrated the value of incisive and often persistent questioning. There was less grandstanding (see Bill Cash’s longwinded statements in previous sessions) and shorter, sharper questions. With grouped themes and a sweeper MP (Meg Hillier), some use of supplementary questions and a couple of additional questions from MPs not participating, the Chair allowed a wider scope of involvement. The Committee had a balance between forward looking questions ‘what happens next?’ and reflections ‘whose advice have you taken?’. It is perhaps the second set that proves more valuable. In each case Johnson appeared wrong footed, hinting that the Alert level had fallen from 4 to 3 and admitting that the Cabinet Secretary hadn’t seen the evidence on the Cummings trip to Durham.
Compared to his predecessors, this Prime Minister gave a performance that demonstrated neither command of his brief, nor certainty over next steps. The session gave more public evidence of his fallibility under scrutiny, an ‘inability to read the situation.’ In exposing the calibre of executive leadership then the Liaison Committee performed a valued service.
Will we see another performance? The Prime Minister wriggled out of any commitment to appear again, rather oddly blaming the time taken to prepare. He is unlikely to acquiesce to another appearance anytime soon.
Cicero, indeed, was acutely aware of the risks of the performance:
I am afraid of seeming either to promise more than I can perform, which suggests complete irresponsibility, or to perform less than I can, which suggests bad faith and indifference.
Dr Mark Bennister has researched and published on the Liaison Committee. He held an Academic Fellowship in the House of Commons from 2016-19. He has published a Commons research briefing (with Richard Kelly) a report Questioning The Prime Minister: How Effective Is The Liaison Committee? and academic research in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations in 2016 (with Dr Alix Kelso and Dr Phil Larkin).
This was first published on the PSA Parliaments and Legislatures blog: https://parliamentsandlegislatures.wordpress.com/2020/06/03/liaison-committee-a-prime-ministerial-performance/.