MPs dismiss claims inquiry into Boris Johnson is ‘unfair’ and ‘flawed’

MPs investigating whether Boris Johnson misled Parliament over lockdown parties in Downing Street have rejected a claim that their procedures are “unfair” and “fundamentally flawed”.

A legal opinion commissioned by the Government from senior barrister Lord Pannick KC shortly before Mr Johnson left office warned the investigation by the Commons Privileges Committee would be ruled unlawful by the courts.

But in its response, the committee said its own legal advisers had found that Lord Pannick’s opinion was founded on “a systemic misunderstanding of the parliamentary process and misplaced analogies with the criminal law”.

It rejected Lord Pannick’s view that a fair procedure required that Mr Johnson should be able to be represented at its hearings by counsel who would be able speak on his behalf and cross-examine witnesses.

Lord Pannick KC
Lord Pannick said the committee’s procedures were ‘unfair’ and ‘fundamentally flawed’ (Aaron Chown/PA)

It said that while witnesses were allowed to be accompanied by a legal adviser, it would require a change in the procedures of the House to allow them to take part in the hearings.

The committee also dismissed Lord Pannick’s argument that a failure by the committee to make an explicit distinction on whether Mr Johnson misled MPs intentionally could have a “chilling effect” on parliamentary debate, with MPs fearful of mis-speaking.

It noted there were well-established ways for minister to correct the record when the House was misled, which had been used at the rate of more than 200-a-year in recent years.

Mr Johnson in his ministerial career had made a number of formal corrections, including on five occasions when he was foreign secretary.

The committee, chaired by the senior Labour MP Harriet Harman, rejected Lord Pannick’s claim that Mr Johnson would have to give evidence before he knew the case against him.

Harriet Harman
Labour MP Harriet Harman is chairing the inquiry (Niall Carson/PA)

“The committee’s resolution on procedure makes clear that there will be multiple opportunities for Mr Johnson to consider the evidence and respond to points made by other witnesses or the committee, concluding in an opportunity to comment on any criticisms included in the draft of the final report,” it said.

“It is not the case that Mr Johnson would be called to give evidence without knowing the detail of the case that he has to meet. That is a fundamental misunderstanding of the committee’s procedure.”

The committee said that throughout the process it had followed the “clear, impartial and unambiguous advice” it had received from its own legal advisers, including Sir Ernest Ryder, a former president of tribunals in the UK and Lord Justice of Appeal.

It rejected what it said had been the “unacceptable” attacks which it had been subjected to “from some quarters”, saying they could constitute a potential contempt of Parliament.

“The committee’s work, and by implication the House as a whole, has been subject to much groundless criticism and comment, extending to personal attacks from some quarters on members of the committee,” it said.

“Such a campaign is unprecedented and should be regarded as unacceptable; in some instances these attacks constitute a potential contempt of Parliament because they appear to be designed to impede the functioning of the House.”

The committee also sharply criticised the way in which the Government had published Lord Pannick’s opinion rather than submitting it to the committee in evidence, saying it was “highly irregular”.