Boris Johnson: Watchdog examines £220,000 taxpayers’ bill for Partygate defence
The government’s decision to give £220,000 of taxpayers’ money to cover Boris Johnson’s legal fees for the upcoming Partygate inquiry is being looked into by officials at the National Audit Office (NAO).
Labour has attacked Rishi Sunak over the money set aside for the former Tory leader’s defence, with Sir Keir Starmer urging the PM to tell Mr Johnson: “He made the mess, he can pick up the bill”.
The NAO has not yet decided to launch a formal investigation into the funding, but a letter has revealed one of the spending watchdog’s top officials will speak to the Cabinet Office about the matter.
Tom Brake, director of the Unlock Democracy campaign group, wrote to the NAO to inquire whether setting aside £220,000 for Mr Johnson’s legal defence was a “sensible and legitimate use of public money”.
In a reply letter, first published by The Guardian, a NAO director said they had contacted the Cabinet Office to “request a meeting to obtain more information about any arrangements for the legal services”.
The former PM is preparing to face a televised grilling from MPs on the privileges committee in the weeks ahead about whether he lied to parliament about what he knew about Covid parties inside No 10.
Mr Johnson denies misleading parliament, telling his staunch ally Nadine Dorries on TalkTV that anyone who suspects he deliberately covered up illicit lockdown parties was “out of their mind”.
The bill for lawyers advising Mr Johnson has almost doubled since the autumn – and could go up again depending on how long the Partygate inquiry takes, the government admitted last week.
Solicitors firm Peters and Peters was awarded a contract worth £129,700 in August to provide Mr Johnson with advice during the investigation into his conduct by the privileges committee.
But Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm told MPs that the amount has since shot up to £222,000, because of the length of the inquiry.
Both No 10 and the Cabinet Office claim there is precedent for former ministers to get legal support for anything relating to their duties while in government.
But Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said the Sunak government was “writing a blank cheque for the disgraced prime minister’s legal fund”.
She added: “Ministers must come clean on the nature of this murky legal contract, and explain both who this arrangement was agreed by and why it has been allowed to continue unchecked.”
The contract with Peters and Peters has already paid for advice from leading lawyer Lord Pannick, who claimed the priviledges committee was adopting an “unfair procedure” and a “fundamentally flawed” approach.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “There is an established precedent across multiple administrations that former ministers may be supported with legal representation after they have left office when matters relate to their time and conduct as a minister.”