Government spending watchdogs are probing a controversial decision to provide £220,000 of taxpayers’ money to fund the legal defense of the inquiry into Boris Johnson’s Partygate denials.
The National Audit Office (NAO) has not yet decided whether to launch a formal inquiry, but one of its directors plans to speak to the Cabinet Office about it.
In addition to the already established six-figure budget, sources have also indicated that more money may be set aside to cover the former prime minister’s legal advice, with the Committee of Privileges probe likely to drag on until next month.
The revelations come as Johnson issued a fresh defense of his actions as PM during lockdown, insisting: “I thought what we were doing was within the rules.”
Keir Starmer accused Johnson of relying on taxpayers to foot the bill amid a long-running investigation into whether he flouted any Covid rules before swapping fines for illegal parties The tax had misled the Parliament.
The Labor leader said he “can’t believe it” and urged Rishi Sunak to “put his foot down” at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday and tell Johnson that “he messed up, he can take up the bill”. “.
The Cabinet Office has given the green light to an initial £129,000 contract for legal advice with the firm Peters & Peters in August 2022, which Johnson has used to help protect himself since the Privileges Committee inquiry began last summer Have done
The contract has been extended until 28 February and the budget has been increased by £220,000, due to delays in handing over the information requested by the seven-member committee, which has a Conservative majority but a Labor chair.
Tom Breck, director of Unlock Democracy and a former Liberal Democrat MP, wrote to the NAO asking whether it was under investigation whether the expenditure was a “fair and lawful use of public funds”.
In a reply seen by the Guardian, the NAO director responsible for financial audit at the Cabinet Office said he had asked the department to “request a meeting to find out more about any arrangements for legal services”. had contacted
The meeting was due to take place this week, and the NAO director said they would review any relevant documents provided by the Cabinet Office and provide a full response later.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said it “rang alarm bells” and accused Sunak’s government of “writing a blank check to the discredited prime minister’s legal fund”.
He said: “Ministers must come clean on the nature of this vague legal contract, and explain both by whom this arrangement was accepted and why it has been allowed to continue unchecked.”
Brake said there was “strong evidence” Johnson misled Parliament over Partygate.
He told the Guardian: “In these circumstances, and with public finances under severe pressure, the taxpayer should not be underwriting his own open-ended defense legal costs. Fortunately for Johnson, thanks to his recent extra-parliamentary activities , He can pay for them himself.
A spokeswoman for the NAO said a question had been received from a member of the public regarding the audit of the Cabinet Office accounts. “We are seeking further information in response to the correspondence and will consider this matter as part of our audit,” he added.
Sunak’s spokesman defended the idea of taxpayers meeting Johnson’s legal advice costs, saying: “There is established precedent where former ministers are supported with legal costs if it is the case that the action was taken as a minister.” related to their work. The Cabinet Office was also contacted for comment.
Sources have indicated that the £220,000 budget for Johnson’s legal advice may be increased again, with the contract expiring on 28 February, but the Privileges Committee has yet to collect all the oral evidence, start a public hearing or decide on its own. Report writing has not started.
Johnson said on Wednesday he was “respecting” the privileges committee as it continues to look into his denials to the dispatch box that any Covid rules were breached before law-breaking parties were confirmed from Scotland Yard .
She gave a rare interview to one of her staunchest supporters, Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, for a new show on TalkTV she will front.
Johnson said: “Anyone who thinks I was knowingly going to parties that were breaking lockdown rules in Number 10, and then knowingly covering up parties that were illegal that other people were going to, it Everything is strictly for the birds, and if anyone thinks so, he goes mad.
He acknowledged that he “had to wait to reach a conclusion about this”, and added: “What I will say is that we all thought we were doing what we were doing – or of course, I thought That what we were doing – was within the rules. And what we certainly thought was that we were working blindly hard on some bigger priority for the country.
Alluding to the government’s work during Covid, Johnson said he was focused on “organising the vaccine rollout” and was “thinking hard about how … to ramp up testing and everything else”.
Since leaving Number 10, Johnson has seen his income rocket due to his involvement in the speaking circuit, advance payments for his memoirs and other tours and articles. Since October 2022, he has declared income of £2,296,905 in addition to his MP salary.