Boris Johnson severs ties with lawyers after police referral

FILE PHOTO: Former British PM Johnson walks at the parliament in London

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's Boris Johnson cut ties with his government-appointed lawyers on Wednesday after he was referred to the police over more potential breaches of COVID-19 lockdown rules, a move the former prime minister's aides have portrayed as a "stitch up".

The Cabinet Office, which is responsible for overseeing the operation of government, said on Tuesday it had made a new referral to police based on information discovered while preparing submissions for a public inquiry into the pandemic.

In a letter, Johnson told the chair of the COVID inquiry, who is pressing to gain access to additional information from the former prime minister via the Cabinet Office, that "as of today, I am unrepresented".

"You may be aware that I am currently instructing new solicitors to represent me in the inquiry," he wrote in the letter.

The letter did not specify why he had stopped working with his previous legal team, appointed by the government to address questions from the COVID inquiry. His supporters said he had lost faith in the Cabinet Office.

The Times newspaper, which first reported the referral, said Johnson's diaries showed visits during the pandemic by his friends to Chequers, a rural country mansion used as a residence by sitting prime ministers.

Johnson's new referral to the police, less than a year since he was ousted from power in part over COVID lockdown-breaking parties, threatens to further deepen divisions in the governing Conservative Party before an election expected next year.

The Cabinet Office, a department of government, said it had made the referral in line with the civil service's code of behaviour.

A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office said "ministers played no role in deciding whether the information should be handed over to the police. The police were first contacted on 16th May prior to any Minister being made aware."

Some of Johnson's supporters cast doubt over the neutrality of the Cabinet Office, saying officials there, with the cover of politicians, are pursuing a "witch-hunt" by referring to the case to the police.

Since the 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union, some Brexit-supporting Conservative lawmakers have argued that officials in the civil service were bent on thwarting Britain's departure from the bloc and some said this was their revenge.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)