‘Very unsatisfactory’: Lord Pannick KC blasts committee in charge of Partygate investigation into Boris Johnson as cost of probe to taxpayer surpasses £250,000
- Crossbencher Lord Patrick Pannick KC says the Privilege Committee ‘proceeded on the basis that the alleged contempt requires an intention to mislead’
- Boris Johnson’s allies have accused the Privileges Committee of a witch hunt
- If found in contempt and suspended from the Commons for more than ten days, the former Prime Minister could face a by-election in his Uxbridge constituency
The row over a parliamentary inquiry into lockdown parties during Boris Johnson’s Downing Street reign intensified today after the leak of a confidential legal opinion about the legitimacy of the probe.
The Privileges Committee, which is examining whether the former Prime Minister misled Parliament about Covid rule-breaking before he left office, has been mired in controversy since one of the country’s leading lawyers argued that its investigation was ‘fundamentally flawed’.
Lord Pannick KC said last month that the probe by the committee, chaired by Labour veteran Harriet Harman, would be declared unlawful if it was susceptible to challenge in the courts because it proposed holding Mr Johnson in contempt of Parliament even if he unintentionally misled MPs.
Lord Pannick KC urged the Privileges Committee to ‘adopt a procedure which is fair’
Partygate started after reports emerged of Christmas parties at Downing St during lockdowns
His opinion infuriated the Committee, which insisted the barrister’s argument was based on a ‘misunderstanding’ of the parliamentary process and ‘misplaced’ comparisons with criminal cases.
It also rejected his warning that it would have a ‘chilling effect’ on democracy for the former PM to be reprimanded for inadvertently misleading the Commons last December when he denied parties had taken place in No. 10.
Now the Mail on Sunday has obtained Lord Pannick’s response to the committee’s criticisms, in which he cites extensive legal precedent for his arguments.
It comes as sources have claimed to this newspaper that the legal bill footed by taxpayers for the inquiry has already exceeded £250,000, with Government officials – and even members of the committee itself – bemoaning the amount of time it is consuming.
Civil servants in No. 10 and the Cabinet Office are being offered video counselling and access to a 24/7 helpline providing ‘immediate emotional support’ around fears of private information being leaked.
In his damning rebuttal to the Committee, Lord Pannick says it has not addressed the fact that ‘the House of Commons debate when this matter was referred to the Committee proceeded on the basis that the alleged contempt requires an intention to mislead’.
The barrister writes: ‘This is all very unsatisfactory. The Committee needs to clarify that there is no question of a contempt by Mr Johnson in the circumstances of this case unless an intention to mislead the House is established.’
Mr Johnson’s allies have accused the committee of being a ‘kangaroo court’ which is conducting a ‘witch hunt’ against the former Prime Minister.
The committee is expected to start witness hearings before Christmas. Once it has delivered its findings, all MPs will vote on its recommendations.
If Mr Johnson is found in contempt and suspended from the Commons for more than ten days, he could face a by-election in his Uxbridge constituency.
Lord Pannick KC in 2019 at the Supreme Court on the final day of the appeal hearing over claims Boris Johnson asked the Queen to prorogue parliament to prevents Brexit crisis talks
‘it is of especial importance that the Committee ensures that it correctly directs itself on the relevant principles and adopts a procedure which is fair,’ wrote Lord Patrick Pannick KC
In his new opinion, Lord Pannick writes: ‘The allegations against Mr Johnson are grave, and the potential penalties severe.
‘In such a context, it is of especial importance that the Committee ensures that it correctly directs itself on the relevant principles and adopts a procedure which is fair.’
A Cabinet Office source said: ‘This entire exercise is a stressful and expensive waste of time, and has been rendered otiose anyway by Mr Johnson’s departure from office.’
A Committee spokesperson said: ‘The Committee has already responded to Lord Pannick’s opinion substantively, this “further opinion” adds nothing.’