Lord Pannick – the QC who became Boris Johnson’s unlikely ally in partygate fightback
This article was first published on September 2 2022.
On the face of it, Lord Pannick may seem an unlikely ally of Boris Johnson in his fight to clear his name over partygate. After all, it was the eminent QC who twice thwarted British prime ministers in their efforts to push through Brexit.
In 2016, representing Gina Miller, he successfully argued before the Supreme Court that the Prime Minister did not have the authority to trigger Article 50 and the UK’s exit from the European Union without a vote in Parliament.
And in 2019, again representing Ms Miller, he headed the case that overturned Mr Johnson’s shock prorogation of Parliament that the PM had done to prevent MPs from blocking a no-deal Brexit. It was the zenith of the anti-Brexit movement, the closest Remainers came to preventing Brexit before the general election wrecked their dreams.
He continued to criticise the Government’s behaviour over Brexit. In June 2022 he wrote a letter published in The Times that called the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would allow ministers to unilaterally ditch the Brexit deal, “a clear breach of international law”.
Yet, scratch a little deeper and it would seem to be a case that perfectly fits the Hertford College alumni. For he has a track record of taking on unfashionable or unpopular cases where there is the possibility, however righteously, that political power has been wielded unjustly.
The year he took up Ms Miller’s crusade, Lord Pannick also worked for the fashion mogul Sir Philip Green, co-authoring a legal opinion that defended the Topshop owner against sharp criticisms by a Parliamentary inquiry over his role in the collapse of British Home Stores.
The opinion dismissed the inquiry as “bizarre” and “unsupportable” and claimed that MPs had already decided who to blame before beginning their work.
A man from a relatively modest background
Not long after his second Brexit triumph, Lord Pannick took up yet another unfashionable cause, this time that of Shamima Begum, the so-called Islamic State bride who fled to Syria to join the Jihadists. He argued that the Government had overstepped its powers by effectively making her stateless.
In 2021, Lord Pannick hit back at Labour and other critics who said that British lawyers and judges should stop working in Hong Kong due to China’s brutal crackdown on dissent. He argued that the British legal community should be trying to uphold the former British colony’s independent legal system rather than abandoning Hong Kong to its fate.
The QC also worked for the BBC in its efforts to name a man who allegedly was an informant for MI5 and accused by the broadcaster of domestic abuse.
A man from a relatively modest background, Lord Pannick won a scholarship to Bancroft’s School in Essex before heading to Hertford.
He then won a highly competitive prize fellowship at All Souls College, where he has retained a fellowship ever since. In 1999, he co-edited a leading textbook on the then-new Human Rights Act, while he became a QC at the early age of 36.
Lord Pannick sat as a part-time judge but chose not to pursue a judicial career, reportedly because he felt it lacked the intellectual stimulation provided by life as a barrister.
In taking on Mr Johnson’s case, Lord Pannick finds himself on the side of a man whose ambitions he has more usually thwarted. Yet in standing up to what he has reportedly argued to be an unfair investigation, the QC is very much acting as he long has.