Conservative MP praises Harriet Harman’s ‘final act of service’ as privileges committee chair

A Conservative MP has labelled Harriett Harman’s tenure as chair as the privileges committee her “final act of service” in an emotional tribute to the long-serving Labour MP.

Laura Farris, Conservative MP for Newbury, countered critics from her own party who had been accused of impugning the integrity of Ms Harman on the ground that she was biased against Boris Johnson. 

She said: “To contextualise the appointment of the Mother of the House [Harriett Harman] I want to say on her behalf that she had already announced her intention to retire from parliament at the next election. 

“Her parliamentary career has spanned five decades and has been defined, probably more so than that of any other person who has ever sat in this House, by her commitment to the advancement of women’s rights”

She added: “Fourteen weeks before she took up that appointment, her husband of 40 years, Jack, had died. Against that background, I invite Members to consider what is more likely: that she agreed to chair the Committee as a final act of service to this House or that she did so because she was interested in pursuing a personal vendetta against Boris Johnson?”.

Ms Harman, who is Mother of the House as the longest serving female member, appeared teary-eyed as Ms Farris addressed the chamber. 

Ms Harman was asked to chair the privileges committee by her party managers (whips) after Labour MP Sir Chris Bryant recused himself. The chair had to be a Labour MP under a Standing Order of the House of Commons.

Ms Harman was elected and served as the deputy leader of the LabourpParty between 2007 and 2015. In the course of a 40-year political career, she also previously held a range of posts in the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown governments.

In June 2022 she was charged with investigating claims that then-prime minister Boris Johnson had misled the House of Commons over partygate. 

The committee ultimately found that Mr Johnson had misled the House of several occasions over his knowledge of Downing Street parties, and MPs voted overwhelmingly to endorse the committee’s report on the matter last month. 

Yesterday, MPs debated a special report of the committee into those members judged to have undermined the work of Ms Harman and her colleagues. 

The committee’s report named Nadine Dorries, Mark Jenkinson, Sir Michael Fabricant, Brendan Clarke-Smith and Dame Andrea Jenkyns, along with Conservative peer Lord Goldsmith. 

It judged that there was a “sustained” and “coordinated” attempt from such members to undermine the work of the privileges committee. Last night, a motion that endorsed the second report was passed without any dissenting voices, despite a heated debate in in the lead up – in which those named by the report expressed their grievances with the process.

Introducing the motion to approve the report, Ms Mordaunt told the commons: “I hope colleagues who have been named will reflect on their actions.

“One of the most painful aspects of this whole affair is that it has involved animosities between colleagues, and colleagues of the same political hue. But I know of at least one member named in the report who has taken the time to speak with regret to some other members of that committee and I applaud them for doing so.

She added: “I live in hope that today will be the end of this sorry affair.”

Thangam Debbonaire, the shadow commons leader, said many had thought “standards in public life had hit rock bottom” over partygate but that the “shameful” action by Johnson’s allies had damaged public trust in parliament “further still”.

Ms Harman, speaking in the debate, said: “Our special report makes it clear that it’s not acceptable for members fearing an outcome which they don’t want to level criticisms at the committee, so that in the event the conclusion is one they don’t want they will have undermined the inquiry’s outcome by undermining confidence in the committee.”