Partygate: Chisholm to face grilling over sign-off for Johnson’s legal bill

Cabinet Office perm will be questioned on approval process for £265k fund to support ex-PM through Privileges Committee hearings
Sir Alex Chisholm Photo: Parliament TV

By Jim Dunton

27 Oct 2023

Cabinet Office perm sec Sir Alex Chisholm is set to face further questions about the £265,000 legal-support package agreed to help Boris Johnson fight allegations he misled parliament over Partygate events, the chair of an influential committee of MPs has said.

William Wragg, who chairs parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, said MPs on the panel are looking to grill the perm sec about the basis for the funding and the authorisation process.

Wragg’s comments follow dissatisfaction over arrangements surrounding the legal support expressed by National Audit Office head Gareth Davies in his opinion on the Cabinet Office’s annual report and accounts for 2022-23, published last month.

Davies said the Cabinet Office’s argument that there was a precedent for providing legal support to former prime ministers in such situations were not “wholly persuasive”. He said the department had cited examples that were public inquiries rather than a panel of MPs on the Privileges Committee investigating a contempt of the House of Commons.

“In my view these examples are substantially different,” he said.

In August last year the then-No.10 permanent secretary Samantha Jones approved an original £129,000 tranche of funding for Johnson’s legal team. The available funding was subsequently increased twice by Chisholm, who is principal accounting officer for the Cabinet Office as well as perm sec.

Davies suggested that, as principal accounting officer, Chisolm should have been involved in approving spending on the legal fees before any expenditure had been incurred and that the decision should have been supported by a formal accounting officer assessment.

PACAC chair Wragg’s pledge to question Chisholm further over the sign-off processes for Johnson’s legal funding and the basis for it being considered appropriate came in a letter to Pat McFadden, shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. McFadden had asked what consideration PACAC was giving to Davies’ observations.

Wragg said Chisholm had been “robust” in defending the precedent for providing legal support to former prime ministers and the basis for not seeking a written direction to authorise the funding when he appeared before PACAC in January.

However he suggested Davies’ commentary threw new light on the matter and required urgent exploration.

“Given the comptroller and auditor general’s observations on both the precedents for such expenditure, and the process by which it was approved, the committee will be returning to the matter with Mr Chisholm at the next available opportunity,” Wragg said.

Johnson quit as an MP in June after being shown a draft version of the Privileges Committee’s findings.

It  found him guilty of “deliberately” and “repeatedly” misleading the House of Commons in relation to answers he gave about events in Downing Street in 2020 and 2021 that broke Covid restrictions in place at the time.

Johnson had admitted misleading parliament, but claimed he did not do so knowingly. His resignation as an MP allowed him to escape a suspension from parliament that would have triggered a recall ballot in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency.

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