Boris Johnson's allies fight back against 'witch-hunt' future partygate inquiry

Legal opinion sets out case against inquiry days before the prime minister is due to depart No 10

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is subject to an inquiry into claims he misled parliament. AFP
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Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson has launched a fightback against a parliamentary inquiry into whether he deliberately misled MPs about parties in Number 10 during lockdown.

Just days before he is due to leave Downing Street to make way for his successor, allies of Mr Johnson have hit out at the investigation, with one branding it a witch hunt.

The Conservative-led government is seeking legal advice from top barrister Lord Pannick, a crossbencher in the House of Lords, which the prime minister’s supporters say undermines the legitimacy of the inquiry.

Lord Pannick has in the past taken on the government over its decision to strip ISIS bride Shamima Begum of her British citizenship, and has also acted for anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller.

The inquiry being conducted by the all-party Privileges Committee centres on statements Mr Johnson made in the House of Commons about parties in Downing Street during Covid-19 shutdowns. If he is found to have lied to MPs it would constitute a contempt of parliament.

If Mr Johnson is found to be in contempt of parliament he could be suspended or possibly kicked out of the House of Commons after a recall petition.

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, a key ally of Boris Johnson, branded the inquiry a witch hunt. AFP

After the committee announced it could rule against the prime minister even if he did not deliberately mislead MPs, supporters of Mr Johnson lashed out.

Downing Street and the Cabinet office called in Lord Pannick for a legal opinion, claiming the inquiry could damage the functioning of government.

But loyal backers of the ousted prime minister say the barrister’s advice should spell the end of the inquiry.

Lord Pannick’s legal advice on the inquiry is expected to be published on Friday. A senior government source said its publication would be “absolutely devastating”, according to The Telegraph.

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries called for the investigation to be shelved.

"This expert legal opinion shows that the inquiry was a biased, Kafkaesque witch hunt ― it should now be halted before it does any more damage," she told the Daily Mail.

"As a minister, you simply cannot verify every single piece of trusted advice and information you are given in good faith by well-intentioned and conscientious senior officials.

"What this potentially does is set a trap for every minister in the future, and it's a chilling prospect for the future of our democracy."

Tory MP Kevin Hollinrake was asked on Sky News about reports that the legal advice commissioned by the Cabinet Office on the inquiry calls into question the legitimacy of the investigation.

The Thirsk and Malton MP said: “I think the key thing here is the word intentionally. It’s not whether the prime minister or any other minister misled parliament.

“It’s whether there was an intention to do that. And that’s what the Privileges Committee is going to look at, if it decides to go down this route, which I think it is, and then it will report accordingly.

“The committee is an independent committee of the house. It’s not a governmental issue. The house committee … these are elected members who sit on that committee, and they represent the house as a whole," he said. "So they have got an independent job to do. It’s a cross-party committee, I’m sure they will take into account the legal advice that’s just been issued and act accordingly. But as I say, the key thing about this is the word intentionally.

“Did the prime minister intentionally mislead the house? That’s what they should look at, and they should be allowed to do their job.”

Updated: September 02, 2022, 9:45 AM
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