The Cabinet Office’s role in challenging a Partygate probe into Boris Johnson has been questioned as “odd” by a Parliamentary standardization chief.
Chris Bryant, chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, questioned why the Cabinet Office commissioned legal advice from a senior QC on behalf of Mr Johnson, a private individual.
“That seems like a very odd species,” said Mr Bryant, a Labor MP who withdrew from his committee’s inquiry into whether Mr Johnson was in the Commons about what he knew about lockdown parties in No 10 had misled.
The QC, Lord Pannick, is due to publish his report on Friday midday and is expected to criticize the way MPs are conducting the inquiry.
The Commons Privileges Committee has threatened to fine Mr Johnson even if he had only accidentally misled Parliament about gatherings at No 10 during lockdown.
But Lord Pannick’s report is meant to warn that the way MPs are conducting the inquiry could jeopardize democracy and muzzle ministers reluctant to speak openly for fear of accidentally misleading the House of Commons.
“It is very strange that the Cabinet Office seems to have commissioned this advice on behalf of a private individual, namely the Prime Minister,” Bryant said.
He said it was also “very odd for a Member of the House of Lords to tell the House of Commons what to do”.
Mr Bryant said the legal advice’s premise was “entirely misleading or misjudged” as there were established and “reasonable” ways for ministers to correct the records if they were unwittingly misleading the House of Commons.
He said the question had never been whether Mr Johnson “knowingly” misled the Commons, but whether, having done so, he failed to correct it or did it repeatedly or carelessly.
The senior QC’s legal opinion is believed to have been commissioned over concerns about the impact the bipartisan inquiry could have on the functioning of the government.
It is expected to focus on an alleged change in the scope of the investigation. Ministers are normally only reprimanded when they are found to have intentionally or knowingly misled the House.
“Biased, Kafkaesque Witch Hunt”
If found guilty of contempt, Mr Johnson could be suspended from Parliament – and even face losing his MP seat in a by-election.
The committee said it would follow the interpretation of Eve Samson, Secretary of the Journals, who said: “It is for the committee and the House of Representatives to determine whether there has been a contempt, and the intent of the contemnor is not relevant to that decision.” .”
On Thursday night, supporters of the Prime Minister argued that Lord Pannick’s advice should spell the end of the inquiry.
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said: “This legal opinion shows the investigation was a one-sided, Kafkaesque witch hunt – it should be stopped now before it does more damage.
“As a minister, you simply cannot verify every single piece of trustworthy advice and information you receive in good faith from well-meaning and conscientious senior officials. What this potentially does is set a trap for every future minister and it is a terrifying prospect for the future of our democracy.”