Audit Finds Fault Surrounding Johnson's Legal Fees
The National Audit Office (NAO) has criticized the UK government's decision to use taxpayer funds to pay for former Prime Minister Boris Johnson's legal fees in the Partygate inquiry. In a recent audit opinion, the NAO questioned the reasoning behind the decision, stating that it was not "wholly persuasive."
The government came under scrutiny earlier this year when it was revealed that they had used public funds to cover the costs of Johnson's lawyers during the inquiry into parties held during the pandemic. Despite facing criticism, the government has repeatedly defended the decision, claiming it was justified as Johnson was entitled to legal support for his role as a minister.
However, the NAO's inspection of government accounts found that due process was not followed when approving the use of taxpayer money for Johnson's legal fees. The Cabinet Office did not seek approval from the Treasury, as is required for "novel, contentious or repercussive" spending decisions.
According to Gareth Davies, who leads the NAO, the government's argument that the expenditure was not novel, contentious, or repercussive was not convincing. The Cabinet Office had cited previous cases such as legal support given to former ministers during public inquiries, including the Grenfell Tower fire and BSE disease outbreak, as precedents. However, the NAO found that these examples were not directly applicable to the Partygate inquiry, and most related to support for former prime ministers in public inquiries, rather than an investigation into a potential contempt of Parliament by a sitting prime minister.
The Cabinet Office also failed to provide a specific example of a former minister receiving taxpayer-funded legal support for a parliamentary inquiry. The NAO's findings call into question the government's claim that Johnson's case was not novel or contentious and raises doubts about the justification for using public funds to cover his legal costs.
The decision to use public money has been heavily criticized, with opposition parties and the public calling for Johnson to pay the costs himself. Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer said it was "outrageous" that taxpayers were footing the bill for Johnson's mistakes, while others have highlighted Johnson's substantial earnings since leaving his role as prime minister. Johnson has earned millions from book deals and speaking engagements since stepping down in 2019.
The Privileges Committee inquiry, which concluded in January, found Johnson had deliberately misled Parliament about parties held in government buildings during Covid-19 lockdowns. The committee's finding that Johnson had committed repeated contempts of Parliament was unprecedented, and the former prime minister branded the inquiry a "political assassination." He resigned as a Conservative MP in June, claiming he had been "forced out of Parliament" due to the Partygate scandal.
In response to the NAO's findings, a spokesman for Johnson maintained that it was a long-standing principle for former ministers' legal fees to be covered by the government. However, the NAO's criticism highlights the need for clearer guidelines and procedures around the use of public funds for legal fees in cases like Johnson's. The spending watchdog has recommended that the Cabinet Office's chief accounting officer should have approved the expenditure before it was incurred, in line with Treasury guidance. Whether Johnson will personally reimburse the costs or the government will be held accountable for their spending decisions remains to be seen.