Watchdog scrutinizes £220,000 taxpayers bill for Partygate defense

Officials at the National Audit Office (NAO) are looking at the government’s decision to award £220,000 of taxpayers’ money to cover Boris Johnson’s legal fees for the upcoming Partygate investigation.

Labor has attacked Rishi Sunak over defense money set aside for the former Tory leader, and Sir Keir Starmer urged the prime minister to tell Johnson: “He made the mess, he can foot the bill.”

The NAO has not yet decided to launch a formal investigation into the funding, but a letter has revealed that a top official from the spending watchdog will speak to the Cabinet Office on the matter.

Tom Brake, director of campaign group Unlock Democracy, wrote to the NAO to ask whether setting aside £220,000 for Johnson’s legal defense was a “sensible and legitimate use of public money”.

In a reply letter, first published by The Guardian, An NAO director said he had contacted the Cabinet Office to “request a meeting to obtain further information on any arrangements for legal services.”

The former prime minister is preparing to face a televised questioning by MPs in the privileges committee in the coming weeks over whether he lied to parliament about what he knew about Covid matches inside No 10.

Johnson denies misleading parliament and told his loyal ally Nadine Dorries on TalkTV that anyone who suspected him of deliberately covering up illicit lockdown parties was “insane”.

The bill for lawyers advising Johnson has nearly doubled since the fall and could rise again depending on how long the Partygate investigation takes, the government admitted last week.

The law firm Peters and Peters was awarded a contract worth £129,700 in August to advise Mr Johnson during the inquiry into his conduct by the privileges committee.

But Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary Alex Chisholm told MPs that the amount has since ballooned to £222,000, due to the length of the investigation.

Both No 10 and the Cabinet Office say there is a precedent for ex-ministers getting legal support for anything related to their duties while in government.

But Labor Party deputy leader Angela Rayner said Sunak’s government was “writing a blank check to the disgraced prime minister’s legal fund.”

It added: “Ministers must clarify the nature of this murky legal contract and explain who agreed to this deal and why it has been allowed to continue unchecked.”

The contract with Peters and Peters has already paid for the advice of prominent lawyer Lord Pannick, who claimed that the privileges committee was adopting “unfair procedure” and a “fundamentally flawed” approach.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “There is a precedent set in multiple administrations that former ministers can be supported with legal representation after they have left office when matters relate to their time and conduct as ministers.”

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