Boris Johnson’s claims that the inquiry into whether he misled Parliament is unlawful and biased are “nonsense”, an ex-parliamentary lawyer has said.
The former prime minister is expected to submit a 50-page legal dossier of his defence to the Privileges Committee before his appearance before the committee on Wednesday.
His evidence session is part of an inquiry seeking to decide whether he misled the Commons over claims about his knowledge of ‘Partygate’ gatherings in No 10 and Whitehall during the Covid pandemic.
The committee of seven cross-party MPs is examining evidence around at least four occasions when Mr Johnson may have deliberately misled MPs with his assurances that rules were followed.
While the dossier has not been made public yet, The Times has reported that Mr Johnson’s legal team will argue that the inquiry should adopt a higher burden of proof for finding against him. At the moment the committee must find that he misled Parliament on the balance of probabilities – which is used in civil cases.
Mr Johnson’s team, led by Lord Pannick KC, argues the committee should establish that Johnson is “significantly more likely than not” to have misled the Commons. And that if the committee faced a judicial review, these findings would be deemed unlawful.
Alexander Horne, a barrister who spent two decades as a parliamentary lawyer, said the idea the inquiry was unlawful was “nonsense to put it bluntly”.
The Privileges Committee is not subject to judicial review, he said, and was not conducting a criminal trial. While it had to be fair, it did not need to follow all the standards or conventions of a criminal trial.
“There’s no criminal sanction, the committee is only making a recommendation, it’s not conclusive because if Parliament thinks the recommendation is unfair the House of Commons has the ability not to implement it.”
Mr Horne also disagreed that the committee was politically biased. The Times reported that Johnson was expected to argue that the committee is biased, pointing to previous criticism on Twitter of Mr Johnson by the chairwoman of the committee, the Labour MP Harriet Harman.
Mr Horne pointed out that Ms Harman was elected to the role of chair by members of the committee. He said the committee had taken several “unusual” measures, including bringing in Sir Ernest Ryder, a former Court of Appeal Judge, as an adviser; provided all the evidence to Mr Johnson in the case against him; including witness evidence; and in a rare step, have made the hearings completely public, and subsequent reports public.
“It’s pretty hard to see what more you can do to conduct a fair hearing, they’ve made every effort possible,” he said. “The idea that it is a witch-hunt and he is not going to get a fair hearing is quite insulting to members of the committee, but also the officials and former Court of Appeal judge informing the committee.”
He said the indications that Mr Johnson was relying on accusations of political bias and unlawfulness pointed to a weakness in his defence, though more could come out when the full dossier was released.
“If you have a strong case do you tend to attack the tribunal who’s going to hear it?” Mr Horne said.
In its interim report, the Privileges Committee said the evidence strongly suggested breaches of coronavirus rules in No 10 would have been “obvious” to Mr Johnson.