Culture secretary Nadine Dorries has been accused of being part of “terrorist campaign” to discredit the inquiry into whether Boris Johnson misled parliament on Partygate.
Senior Conservative MP Sir Bernard Jenkin – who sits on the committee set to probe the PM this autumn – lashed out when asked about Ms Dorries claims of a “witch hunt”.
Asked about the PM’s allies’ repeated attacks on the inquiry, Sir Bernard told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme: “If anybody is unhappy with that they should write to the committee with their arguments and we will be compelled to consider to them.”
The MP said: “But I don’t think the committee can respond to what amounts to a sort of publicity campaign designed to discredit the committee.”
Sir Bernard added: “If people wish to criticise it please write to the committee – don’t just conduct a sort of terrorist campaign to try and discredit the committee, because the privileges committee is how we self-regulate our affairs.”
Ms Dorries has called on four Tory MPs on the committee to withdraw from the “witch hunt” and “Machiavellian process” – with unnamed Johnson allies previously telling the press the probe amounted to a “kangaroo court”.
Tory peer Lord Goldsmith, another senior Johnson ally, attacked the “highly partisan, vengeful and vindictive” MPs on the committee – claiming “nearly all” of the nine MPs have criticised the PM.
But the cross-party committee has insisted its investigation will still go ahead, despite Mr Johnson’s resignation as Tory leader and his departure from No 10 in early September.
Sir Bernard said any potential Commons vote to stop the inquiry would mean “we would all have to answer questions as to why suddenly it’s not important anymore when it was very important before”.
The senior backbencher insisted that he still had a “completely open mind” about whether or not the prime minister had misled MPs.
Jenkin said the report setting out the terms of the inquiry last month made clear there would be “a fair process” and Johnson would not be “subjected to an unfair prosecution of any kind”.
The committee inquiry led by Labour grandee Harriet Harman expects oral evidence sessions to begin in the autumn, meaning the inquiry could hang over Mr Johnson’s head for months after he departs No 10.
The report published by the committee has made clear that when considering the allegations against Mr Johnson, the standard of proof will be “on the balance of probabilities”.
Mr Johnson’s defenders have questioned whether he “deliberately” or “knowingly” misled parliament during the Partygate saga. But the committee made clear that such commentary is not relevant.
A memo states: “It is for the committee and the House to determine whether a contempt has occurred and the intention of the contemnor is not relevant to making that decision.”
Mr Johnson denies misleading parliament over what he knew of rule-breaking gatherings inside Downing Street.
He faces the prospect of a recall petition – which could trigger a by-election in his Uxbridge constituency – if he is suspended by MPs investigating whether he lied about lockdown parties.
Three former officials at No 10 reportedly believe that the prime minister did not tell the Commons all that he knew about rule-breaking gatherings held during the Covid crisis.
One of the ex-staffers has agreed to give evidence to the privileges committee inquiry into whether the PM mislead, while two others contacted by the committee are considering whether to testify, according to The Telegraph.
Asked if Johnson misled the Commons, one ex-staff member alleged: “Absolutely, damn well he did”. Another claimed Mr Johnson “knew what was going on”.
Laura Farris, Conservative MP for Newbury, revealed on Monday that she had stepped down from the privileges committee last month.
She did not say why she had taken the decision in her tweet, and it she is expected to be replaced by a fellow Tory backbencher.