Saturday 27 May 2023

Paying the piper


The idea that a minister can decide to lie, lie and lie again to the House of Commons and the government will then pay almost a quarter of a million pounds for legal advice to help him respond to the committee investigating his lies without further incriminating himself ought to be outrageous. The decision to lie was his and his alone; Johnson should face the consequences of his actions, and if he feels he needs legal advice to try and wriggle off the hook, he should be paying for it himself, although I know that he finds the idea that he should ever pay for anything to be a strange one. The situation is, however, a little different when it comes to the Covid inquiry. This is an inquiry into who did what and when during the pandemic, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable – in principle at least – that the government should receive legal advice and support and that that support should be extended to those who were ministers at the time.

Except that we’re dealing with Johnson here. As I understand this week’s events, the lawyers appointed by and paid for by the government were working on preparing the various papers and documents requested by the inquiry, and came across entries in those documents which suggested potential illegalities on the part of the former PM. They reported those to their client, which is the cabinet office (since they are paying the legal fees), and civil servants in the cabinet office decided that the appropriate course of action in the case of alleged illegalities was to inform the relevant authorities – in this case, the police. At this point, the former PM seems to have gone ballistic and declared that he no longer wished to be represented by those lawyers, but would appoint his own. What he seems to have expected is that, having uncovered evidence of law-breaking, the lawyers should have spoken only to him, and kept that evidence secret, especially from those who were actually paying the lawyers, even if doing so might undermine the government’s own collective case. It is – or should be – an utterly unrealistic expectation, and the same goes for his belief that the government should now pay for him to appoint his own lawyers, answerable only to him.

The conflict of interest is obvious. The risk to Johnson of presenting a case which ignores some evidence, glosses over other evidence, and depends on him continuing to lie and obfuscate is purely reputational. And to the extent that he has any reputation to lose, he simply doesn’t care, as he has shown time and again. The risk to the lawyers of presenting a case which might run counter to the interests of those paying them, and includes a demand that they cover up any criminal activity which might come to light, is also reputational, but the difference is that they’re likely to care very much about that. But the biggest risk falls on the public purse: the cabinet office is being asked to give an open-ended commitment to pay for a case which puts Johnson’s personal interests above those of the government, which presents evidence which has not been shared with the government and which might undermine the government’s own case, which excludes any evidence that Johnson might not want to include, and over the costs of which they have no control.

He who pays the piper usually calls the tune, but what Johnson wants, as ever, is for someone else to pay the piper whilst he calls the tune – and a tune, at that, which could run directly against the interests of those paying the piper. In his letter to the inquiry chair, Johnson said that he was in the process of appointing new lawyers, but that the Cabinet Office had yet to “agree funding and other practical arrangements”, which raises the question: has Sunak got the guts to tell him to pay for his own lawyers this time?

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