The Cabinet Office failed to follow the proper procedure when it agreed to pay Boris Johnson’s six-figure legal fees for the inquiry that found he had misled parliament over the Partygate scandal, the National Audit Office has said.
The watchdog said it was not convinced by the Cabinet Office’s justification for approving the payment of £265,000 for lawyers supporting Johnson while he was being investigated by the Privileges Committee.
The committee found Johnson had “deliberately” and “repeatedly” misled parliament by assuring MPs that all rules and guidance had been followed completely in No.10 during the pandemic.
In a report accompanying the publication of the Cabinet Office’s annual report, NAO head Gareth Davies said the way the department had approved the payment fell short of the Treasury’s Managing Public Money guidance – and that its reasoning for approving the payments was not “wholly persuasive”.
In August 2022, No.10’s then-permanent secretary Samantha Jones approved the awarding of a contract worth £129,000 to foot Johnson’s legal bills in the inquiry. The Cabinet Office’s principal accounting officer, Sir Alex Chisholm, later approved a series of increases to the contract’s value, to a total of £265,500 by July this year.
The Cabinet Office determined that Johnson was entitled to receive legal support for performing his duties as PM – in this case, speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions. It also considered that public money has been used to fund legal expenses for serving and former prime ministers in the past – although it recognised there was no “exact precedent for this case”.
“The department concluded that this expenditure did not meet the definition of novel, contentious or repercussive expenditure as set out in Managing Public Money and, as such, it did not need to consult with HM Treasury before incurring the expenditure,” Davies’ report said.
According to the cabinet manual, the accounting officer must make the call about costs if legal proceedings against a minister have a “personal” aspect to them. However, the Cabinet Office dismissed this guidance as irrelevant, since Johnson was being investigated for his conduct in performing his prime ministerial duties, not for his actions as a private individual.
But Davies said he “found the department’s judgement to meet Mr Johnson’s legal expenses from public funds to be a borderline one”.
He confirmed that Jones had taken advice from the Cabinet Office’s legal, commercial, and propriety and ethics teams before approving the initial payment of legal expenses in August 2022.
However, Davies noted that Jones was not appointed as an accounting officer – and that, in this view, Chisholm should have carried out a formal assessment and approved the payment.
Chisholm, who is also the department’s perm sec, carried out no such assessment and did not seek a ministerial direction “because he was satisfied that the expenditure met the required four standards for projects and proposals of regularity, propriety, value for money and feasibility”, Davies said.
Davies said his team had expended “significant effort” on determining whether the costs met Managing Public Money guidance.
“While the amount is not quantitatively material, the use of public money in this matter has received widespread comment in parliament and the media and there has therefore been significant public interest as to whether these costs are a legitimate use of public money,” he said.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The government has been consistently clear that the contract award followed the proper procurement process.”