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Sunak accused of ‘cowardly cop-out’ at Johnson vote

By Sophie Wingate, PA Political Correspondent

Rishi Sunak has been accused of a “cowardly cop-out” after ducking a vote in which MPs overwhelmingly endorsed a report that found Boris Johnson lied to Parliament with his partygate denials.

The Prime Minister will chair Cabinet on Tuesday, with some of those around the table having backed the sanctions against his predecessor.

But Mr Sunak, along with the majority of Tory MPs, opted to stay away from the vote on the Privileges Committee’s findings on Mr Johnson’s conduct.

Opposition parties criticised the Prime Minister for failing to “distance himself from his disgraced predecessor”, while Tory former premier Theresa May appeared to urge him to “show that we are prepared to act when one of our own, however senior, is found wanting”.

But publicly backing the report and its sanctions could have risked deepening the Tory civil war between Johnson loyalists and his own administration, which was inflamed over Mr Johnson’s controversial resignation honours list.

The former prime minister “wants to de-escalate tensions” with Mr Sunak, the Times reported.

A source close to Mr Johnson told the newspaper: “He’s in watching and waiting mode. But all of this is conditional on the Sunak government leaving him alone.”

Mr Johnson suffered a humiliating defeat in the Commons vote, with only seven MPs voting against the Privileges Committee’s conclusions.

He will be denied special access to Parliament usually granted to former MPs after the sanction recommended by the Tory-majority panel was endorsed by 354 votes.

The committee also concluded that Mr Johnson should have faced a 90-day suspension for misleading the House when he told the Commons that Covid rules were obeyed in No 10 despite parties taking place.

But he evaded that punishment by having quit as an MP after being told in advance of its findings.

The ex-premier had urged his allies not to oppose the report, arguing that the sanctions had no practical effect, although critics said it was a move designed to avoid revealing the low level of remaining support for him in the Conservative parliamentary party.

Mr Sunak claimed his reticence about publicising his view on the report’s conclusions was because he “wouldn’t want to influence anyone in advance” of the free vote.

He said he respected the committee, but that it was “a matter for Parliament and members as individuals” rather than Government.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said he had afternoon meetings on Monday, including hosting his Swedish counterpart, Ulf Kristersson, before attending a dinner in the evening.

But critics rounded on his absence, with Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper saying: “Tonight Rishi Sunak committed a cowardly cop-out. His failure to vote says all you need to know about this Prime Minister’s lack of leadership.

“Sunak promised integrity yet when push came to shove, he was too weak to even turn up.”

A Labour Party spokesperson said: “Rishi Sunak is too weak to lead a party too divided to govern and working people are paying the price.

“Rather than distance himself from his disgraced predecessor, Rishi Sunak has repeatedly demonstrated he’s just more of the same Conservative failure we’ve had to put up with for 13 years now. It’s time for a change.”

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