To their supporters, the seven MPs on the privileges committee and their small team of legal advisers and clerks investigating whether Boris Johnson misled the Commons are “servants of Parliament”, fulfilling the job the House has appointed them to do.

To Mr Johnson’s allies, however, the inquiry is a partisan “show trial” designed to bury the ex-prime minister’s chances of a return to frontline politics.

While the truth is self-evidently closer to the former than the latter, the privileges committee inquiry has taken on some qualities of a criminal trial due to the fierce battle raging between Mr Johnson’s camp and one of parliament’s ethics watchdogs.

The battle will reach its climax later this month, when the ex-prime minister appears before the committee of four Conservative, two Labour and one SNP MPs, to give evidence over what he knew about lockdown parties in Downing Street – a hearing that will make or break his comeback prospects.

His legal team, led by Lord Pannick – ironically the KC who in 2019 opposed Mr Johnson in the Supreme Court over the then PM’s unlawful prorogation of parliament – has demanded that the committee allow witnesses to be cross-examined, as in a real court case.

In a newly published legal opinion on the inquiry by Lord Pannick and fellow barrister Jason Pobjoy, they cite the 1992 precedent of Ian and Kevin Maxwell, the sons of Robert Maxwell, whose lawyers were given permission to make submissions to the Commons social security committee’s inquiry into their father’s missing pension funds.

Lord Pannick and Mr Pobjoy said: “There is no good reason, in our opinion, why Mr Johnson should be denied the opportunity to have his counsel address the Committee as a ‘witness’ on any issues of principle which arise.

“The Committee points out that, unlike Kevin Maxwell and Ian Maxwell, Mr Johnson is not facing a criminal trial. But he is, of course, facing very serious allegations and potentially severe penalties.”

This argument, i understands, has been rejected by the committee, who are being advised on legal issues by Sir Ernest Ryder, the former Court of Appeal judge.

Mr Johnson will be able to have his lawyers present in the oral evidence session, scheduled for the week beginning 20 March, but the legal advisers will be unable to address the MPs directly.

The Commons says “legal advisers may not speak on behalf of the subject of the inquiry in oral evidence, and witnesses must address committees, which act on behalf of the House, themselves”.

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Any departure from precedent would require a vote of the entire House of Commons to change the rules.

One request from Mr Johnson’s camp the privileges committee has agreed to, however, is for the witnesses who have handed over bombshell WhatsApps and given damning testimonies about what happened inside No10 during Partygate to be identified to the ex-PM and his lawyers.

While not all of their identities will be made public, Mr Johnson will be able to know which of his staff have testified against him.

i has also learned that none of the witnesses have asked for their identities to be kept a secret from Mr Johnson.

The probe itself, which began as a simple “matter referred” from the Commons in April last year, has since taken on an extraordinary life of its own, with clerks and MPs turning detectives in tracking down WhatsApps and witness statements from No10 staff.

Mr Johnson argues the inquiry is biased because he claimed it draws heavily on the probe into Partygate by Sue Gray, who is now off to be Keir Starmer’s chief of staff.

But in fact the privileges committee has gained access to a cache of messages, emails and other documentary evidence far greater than Ms Gray obtained – thanks to an unprecedented data dump from the Cabinet Office in November under Rishi Sunak’s leadership.

Initially, the documents offered to the committee last August, when Mr Johnson was still in Downing Street, were heavily redacted. But committee chairman Harriet Harman and her fellow committee members have had access to the full, unvarnished and gory details of Partygate.

As i revealed in January, the committee has investigated the so-called “Abba party” allegedly hosted by Mr Johnson’s wife Carrie in November 2020, which Ms Gray did not look into fully.

The data transfer led to a number of “new leads” that the committee followed up, with some of the evidence handed over in clandestine meetings away from the scrutiny of the Westminster village.

The MPs and their tight-knit team of staff also conducted a site visit of the inside of Downing Street on 21 February, to check whether Mr Johnson could have been aware, from his flat above No11, that parties were taking place.

In their damning report last Friday, the MPs said they had indeed confirmed that “a line of sight exists from the bottom of the stairs leading up to what was then Mr Johnson’s flat into the Press Office vestibule where these gatherings took place, and that for Mr Johnson to have been present in the vestibule during the gatherings, he would have had to proceed from the staircase through a further intervening anteroom”.

Some of the most damning WhatsApps, which revealed that even Mr Johnson’s own staff in No10 struggled to defend that he could not have known parties were happening when covid restrictions were in place, arrived only last Wednesday – the day that the committee was meeting to finalise its interim report.

That report was intended to present Mr Johnson with all of their evidence, before he appears before the committee this month. The MPs said they believe he “may have misled” parliament in four different ways.

But the ex-prime minister claimed it had in fact “vindicated” him over misleading the Commons, because the committee could not prove that he knew the parties were against the rules.

A source close to Mr Johnson told i on Tuesday: “The privileges committee will vindicate Boris Johnson. Its interim report offered not a shred of evidence that a contempt had been committed even after nearly a year of work.”

And in their latest legal opinion, which was written in October last year but only published by the committee in recent days, Lord Pannick and Mr Pobjoy say: “The Committee is composed of MPs some of whom are political opponents of Mr Johnson, and many of whom have made personal criticisms of his conduct…

“The allegations against Mr Johnson are grave, and the potential penalties severe. In such a context, it is of especial importance that the Committee ensures that it correctly directs itself on the relevant principles and adopts a procedure which is fair – and is seen to be fair.”

However, Tory MPs believe as the date of his evidence draws near, it is not looking good for the ex-PM.

Some believe it is ludicrous that Mr Johnson’s allies claimed the committee was trying to concoct a plot to undermine Brexit – when two of the senior Conservative MPs on the committee include the leading Brexiteers Sir Bernard Jenkin and Sir Charles Walker.

A Conservative backbencher said: “The thing about the Sue Gray report that bothered me was that she bottled it, she didn’t actually investigate the Abba party and all the rest of it. And at the time, Boris Johnson waved around this as some sort of vindication.

“So the line that Boris and his supporters are taking now is just ludicrous. It’s bereft of logic… How they think this is gonna get him off the hook is just beyond me.

“I think from their interim report on Friday, it’s looking pretty serious to Boris and that he and his acolytes have thrown up about Sue Gray has got absolutely nothing to do with that.

“And reading between the lines of their report, he’s going to have to be seriously impressive in front of them to avoid being found guilty.

“I don’t think they’re his enemies on that committee, but they’re people who’ve all got professional reputations to uphold in terms of doing the right thing.”

A former minister suggested Mr Johnson may in fact get a more severe penalty if he tries to challenge the credibility of the committee, as a fellow Tory MP found with an inquiry by the Commons standards commissioner.

They added: “I’m afraid it’s tempting to start to criticise the referee and complain about the playing field, but it’s much better to focus on the issue, seek to answer the points that are raised, and make as strong a case as possible against any sanction.”

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