The row over Boris Johnson’s Covid WhatsApps is an important one - here’s why
NationalWorld’s politics editor Tom Hourigan explains the row over the former PM's WhatsApp messages between the Covid inquiry and the Cabinet Office - and why it matters
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Some of the most important political stories are the ones that - on the surface - are the dullest. Wrapped up in dry, often inscrutable statements and complicated backroom arguments in the corridors of Whitehall.
That doesn’t make them any less important though - so let me try to explain why we should care about one in particular: the current row about Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and whether the government should hand them over to the Covid-19 public inquiry.
A quick summary
The inquiry is investigating all the main issues surrounding the pandemic - for example, how ready the UK was for it and the way politicians responded. This is crucial work, not only so future governments can better prepare for another deadly virus outbreak but also for the families who lost loved ones to Covid and are crying out for answers, maybe even closure. Public hearings start later this month.
The woman overseeing this process is Baroness Hallett - a former Court of Appeal judge. When the inquiry was set up, it was given powers similar to those of a court, meaning she can force people to produce evidence and documents she wants to see. These documents might shine a light on the decision-making process our leaders followed in the pandemic so - for Hallett - it’s vital she gets to look at as many as possible.
That’s why she’s demanded to see WhatsApp messages sent by Boris Johnson during his time as Prime Minister to the people advising him and other members of government - importantly - without any of the material removed or “redacted” as it’s known in the legal jargon. She also wanted access to two-dozen notebooks written by Johnson.
For the last few weeks, there’s been a tussle between Hallett and the Cabinet Office - which supports the Prime Minister and the running of government - about whether those WhatsApps and notebooks should be released. Hallett is demanding they are, and has threatened legal action to get hold of them. The Cabinet Office claimed some of the messages weren’t relevant so it wouldn’t hand them over. On Tuesday (30 May), it said it didn’t have the WhatsApps or notebooks anyway.
Then last night, Johnson’s team confirmed he’d passed them all, without any redactions, to the Cabinet Office and urged the government to give them to Hallett without delay. It had until 4pm today (1 June) to do so. The Cabinet Office chose not to - and is now asking for a judicial review to have her order thrown out.
What are ministers worried about?
At the heart of this is a row about privacy and the ability of the people running the country to have honest, confidential conversations - in good faith - that won’t be quoted back at them years later.
The Cabinet Office says it’s already given the inquiry 55,000 documents and dozens of witness statements - and it shouldn’t have to hand over the “WhatsApp messages of government employees which are not about work but instead are entirely personal and relate to their private lives”. Crucially, it thinks the government should get to decide what material is relevant, rather than handing over everything in unredacted form - giving it less control over the process.
Hallett may decide some of those unredacted messages are relevant, though. Seeing them could potentially affect the conclusions she draws at the end of the inquiry.
That’s why opposition parties demanded the Cabinet Office handed over everything it had. They worried that Number Ten was dragging its feet because some of Johnson’s messages may have been sent to Rishi Sunak - then the Chancellor - and they could be politically damaging for him. Downing Street strongly denies any notion of a cover-up and says it wants the inquiry to be “rigorous and candid”.
What happens next?
The Cabinet Office’s decision to ask for judicial review means this process is now in the hands of the courts. Hallett previously warned that failure to comply with her request could result in a fine or even a prison sentence.
A legal battle will be pretty unseemly for everyone involved, especially Sunak, who’s tried very hard to distance himself from Johnson’s time in office - only to find his old boss keeps popping up in the headlines. For a Prime Minister who put integrity at the heart of his operation, it will also be difficult for him to explain why he’s seeking to obstruct the work of a public inquiry seeking answers for bereaved families - a useful line of attack for Labour at the next general election.
Some experts think the government will lose its legal challenge. Lord Sumption, a former Supreme Court judge, told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One that it was very unlikely the courts would rule against Hallett “if she concludes it is in the public interest that something within her terms of reference should be disclosed”.
There are broader questions too about “government by WhatsApp” and whether it’s good for the running of the country. A recent report by the Institute for Government found the pinging of messages between different departments made things more efficient, but decisions were taken without people being as well informed or having as much information in front of them.
This story has much further to run. Where it goes next isn’t entirely clear, but it could affect the lessons we learn from Covid, and the way governments do their business in future.