Boris Johnson attempts legal fightback against probe into his denials over partygate

On what could be his final act as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has been accused of trying to "intimidate" the Parliamentary committee investigating him over so-called "Partygate". Shehab Khan reports.

An inquiry into whether Boris Johnson misled MPs over his partygate denials has been called "unfair", in legal advice commissioned by the government.

Although the prime minister is due to leave No 10 next week, Downing Street is attempting a legal fightback against a Commons investigation in a move that has been labelled as "bizarre" and "disgraceful bullying".

The Parliamentary Privileges Committee is looking into whether Mr Johnson committed a contempt of Parliament by telling the House on several occasions that there were no lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street.

In response, the government commissioned leading barrister, Lord Pannick, to provide legal advice on that inquiry in a highly unusual move.

Lord Pannick's legal opinion, published on the government's official website on Friday, stated that the Committee's approach to the inquiry is "unlawful" and “fundamentally flawed”.

His advice states: “The Committee has failed to understand that to prove contempt against Mr Johnson, it is necessary to establish that he intended to mislead the House."

The lawyer warns that “the threat of contempt proceedings for unintentional mistakes would have a seriously chilling effect on all members”.

However, the Committee has previously said that the prime minister's intent is not relevant in deciding whether he has committed contempt.

“We advise Mr Johnson that the Committee is proposing to proceed by reference to substantive errors as to the ingredients of contempt and the standard of proof required, and is proposing to adopt an unfair procedure," Lord Pannick continues.

“But for Parliamentary privilege, a court hearing a judicial review application brought by Mr Johnson would declare the Committee’s Report to be unlawful.”

Chris Bryant, who chairs the Privileges Committee but has recused himself from the partygate inquiry, said Lord Pannick's "bizarre ‘opinion’ has no formal status" and it is "wrong on several counts".

The Labour MP questioned why the government is paying for legal advice for an individual.

“You would have thought that Boris Johnson would want to clear his name in front of the Privileges Committee instead of trying to intimidate it," he wrote in a lengthy Twitter thread.

“It’s time this disgraceful bullying stopped. Let’s hear and see the evidence. If Johnson has a good case to make, he’ll be vindicated. If not, he should take his punishment.

"The families who abided by the rules when Johnson’s Downing Street didn’t deserve the truth."

He highlighted several points raised in the lawyer's advice and said they were incorrect.

“Firstly, he fails to mention that the motion that charged the Committee makes no mention of ‘intentionally misleading’," he said.

“There is no danger of ministers being cowed by this inquiry – although of course it would be good if they were careful that what they say to Parliament is true and accurate – as the House will always recognise an honest mistake quickly corrected," he added.

Mr Bryant accused Lord Pannick of attempting to “change the ancient principle that a Member of either House defends their conduct before their colleagues in person, not via a lawyer”.

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The publication of the advice will fuel questions over whether the final act of Mr Johnson will be to improperly attempt to influence the proceedings of the investigation against him.

As Mr Johnson has refused to rule out a political comeback, the committee’s investigation threatens to further tarnish his legacy and could impact his future as the MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

If he is found to have lied to Parliament, Mr Johnson could be suspended from the Commons or even kicked out in a by-election after a recall petition.

Supporters of Mr Johnson have previously argued that Lord Pannick’s legal advice means the investigation should end.