Lawyers comb through Johnson’s partygate defence document before publication

·5-min read
Lawyers comb through Johnson’s partygate defence document before publication

Boris Johnson faces a wait for the publication of his defence to claims he lied to Parliament with his partygate denials after handing over a dossier in the run-up to a televised grilling.

The former prime minister’s allies urged the cross-party Privileges Committee to publish his testimony “as soon as possible” after turning it over on Monday afternoon.

But the PA news agency has been told it is highly unlikely to be published the same day, as clerks and lawyers are still combing through the lengthy document.

Mr Johnson was first asked to provide a written submission in July last year, but provided it 48 hours before his televised questioning by the committee on Wednesday afternoon.

The committee confirmed it received the evidence, key to Mr Johnson’s political future, at 2.32pm on Monday.

A spokesman for the panel of MPs said: “The committee will need to review what has been submitted in the interests of making appropriate redactions to protect the identity of some witnesses.

“The committee intends to publish this as soon as is practicably possible. The material will be published on the committee website.”

If Mr Johnson fails to convince the committee he did not deliberately mislead Parliament, he could be found to have committed a contempt of Parliament and receive a suspension. Such a move could ultimately end in a by-election.

An ally of the Conservative MP said his defence had been handed over on Monday “as planned”, adding: “The committee control the timing of publication. We encourage them to publish it as soon as possible.”

The defence is expected to take the form of a lengthy submission from Mr Johnson’s barrister Lord Pannick KC.

Downing Street has warned Mr Johnson’s supporters against interfering in the inquiry as some sought to portray it as a “witch hunt”.

Conor Burns, a Tory MP who served as a minister in Mr Johnson’s government, has raised questions about the committee’s chairwoman, Labour grandee Harriet Harman, and Tory peer Lord Greenhalgh backed a campaign for the four Conservative MPs on the Tory-majority committee to pull out of the “kangaroo court”.

The long-standing ally of Mr Johnson, who served under him at Westminster and London City Hall, told Times Radio: “I’m concerned that it will be a witch hunt.”

Conor Burns
Conor Burns (Andrew Matthews/PA)

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman responded by saying Rishi Sunak “firmly believes it’s a matter for Parliament”, adding: “Parliament empowered the committee to carry out its work.”

He endorsed Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt’s warning that “a very dim view will be taken” of anyone who “tries to prevent them from carrying out this serious work”.

She also said the committee must be able to “work without fear or favour”.

Mr Sunak’s spokesman added: “We think this is a committee that’s carrying out a function asked to by Parliament, it’s a parliamentary matter, and the Leader of the House set out how we would want parliamentarians to engage with it.”

Downing Street was also forced to deny it had delayed key announcements because of the distraction that will be caused by Mr Johnson’s inquiry appearance.

“It’s wrong to suggest Government business changes as a result of this committee hearing,” the spokesman said.

The hearing clashes with a key vote on Mr Sunak’s new Brexit deal for Northern Ireland, which Democratic Unionist Party MPs plan to oppose.

An estimated £220,000 of taxpayers’ money has been allocated for Mr Johnson’s legal bills.

If the committee rules that he did mislead the House, they will consider whether it was “reckless or intentional” and amounted to a contempt of Parliament.

An interim report by the committee earlier this month said evidence strongly suggested breaches of coronavirus rules would have been “obvious” to the then-prime minister.

But Mr Johnson claimed it was “clear” he had not committed a contempt of Parliament, arguing there is “no evidence in the report that I knowingly or recklessly misled Parliament” or failed to update it in a timely manner.

Mr Johnson has also sought to cast doubt on the findings of Sue Gray’s report on partygate, after she quit the civil service to take up a role in Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s office.

On BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, Mr Burns said: “I rate Harriet Harman highly, but she did tweet in April 2022 that if (Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak) admit guilt, by which she said was accepting a fixed penalty notice, then they are also admitting that they misled the House of Commons.

Harriet Harman
Harriet Harman (House of Commons/PA)

“Boris Johnson contests that but it seems to me the person who is chairing this committee has predetermined it and that causes me a degree of anxiety for Parliament’s reputation in handling this with integrity.”

The Privileges Committee is examining evidence around at least four occasions when Mr Johnson may have misled MPs with his assurances to the Commons that lockdown rules were followed.

The committee will publish its findings on whether Mr Johnson committed a contempt of Parliament and make a recommendation on any punishment, but the ultimate decision will fall to the full House of Commons.

Mr Sunak has said he will not seek to influence MPs on the committee and is expected to grant a free vote in the Commons on any sanction that may be recommended.

A suspension of 10 sitting days or more for Mr Johnson could ultimately trigger a by-election in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat, which he held with a majority of 7,210 in 2019.