Boris Johnson: former Prime Minister ‘at liberty’ to send all evidence to Covid Inquiry, says Robert Jenrick

It comes after Johnson was warned he could lose public funding if he tries to “undermine” the government’s position on the Covid Inquiry.
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Boris Johnson will not be restricted over what he can tell the Covid Inquiry, a senior minister has said, despite previous warnings that he could lose public funding if he tries to “undermine” the government’s position.

The former Prime Minister has so far had his legal advice for the inquiry paid for by the taxpayer, but Cabinet Office lawyers recently wrote to the MP to warn him that this money “would cease to be available” if he “knowingly seek[s] to frustrate or undermine the government’s position on the inquiry”. This includes breaching conditions by releasing evidence without permission, The Sunday Times reported.

It came after Johnson confirmed that he had sent “all unredacted WhatsApps” directly to the Covid Inquiry, standing in opposition to the position of the Cabinet Office which has launched a legal challenge against the request to hand over such material in unredacted form.

But speaking to Sky on Sunday (4 June), immigration minister Robert Jenrick insisted it is “entirely up to the former Prime Minister how he co-operates with the inquiry”, arguing he is “at liberty” to send any documents or WhatsApps and can “advance whatever arguments and make whatever statements he wishes”.

He continued: “There’s absolutely no sense that the government will restrict what Boris Johnson wants to say, but if you use taxpayer funds, obviously you should make sure you’re using them appropriately.”

AUSTIN, TEXAS - MAY 23: Former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson looks on during a tour after a meeting with Gov. Greg Abbott at the Texas State Capitol on May 23, 2023 in Austin, Texas. Gov. Abbott met with Johnson to discuss economic development. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)AUSTIN, TEXAS - MAY 23: Former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson looks on during a tour after a meeting with Gov. Greg Abbott at the Texas State Capitol on May 23, 2023 in Austin, Texas. Gov. Abbott met with Johnson to discuss economic development. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TEXAS - MAY 23: Former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson looks on during a tour after a meeting with Gov. Greg Abbott at the Texas State Capitol on May 23, 2023 in Austin, Texas. Gov. Abbott met with Johnson to discuss economic development. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Commenting on the government’s position, Jenrick argued it would not be “sensible or reasonable” to hand over ministers’ messages or documents that have “nothing whatsoever to do with Covid-19.” He argued that, as a former lawyer, he knows the “normal way to do this is to set reasonable parameters”, but not to ask for things which are “wholly unrelated”.

When asked by Sky’s Sophy Ridgy whether the government is trying to avoid handing over documents due to fears that the messages of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who was Chancellor during the pandemic, could reveal a plot to try to bring down Johnson, Jenrick insisted this was not the case. “No, as I say, the issue here is a simple legal one,” he said.

He then stressed that the government has “the highest regard” for inquiry chairwoman Baroness Heather Hallett - and said he hopes the matter can be resolved before it goes to court.

In its letter to Johnson, the Cabinet Office wrote: “The [public] funding offer will cease to be available to you if you knowingly seek to frustrate or undermine, either through your own actions or the actions of others, the government’s position in relation to the inquiry unless there is a clear and irreconcilable conflict of interest on a particular point at issue.”

A spokesperson later insisted the letter - which was sent after the Uxbridge and South Ruislip MP declared he was “not willing to let my material become a test case for others when I am perfectly content for the inquiry to see it” - was “intended to protect public funds” so taxpayer-funded lawyers are not used for any purpose other than aiding the inquiry.

But supporters of Johnson took issue with the warning, with staunch ally and former culture secretary Nadine Dorries declaring that it is “not a good look for the government”. She tweeted: “All evidence provided should be unfettered and not restricted by government censorship – whatever form that may take.”

Meanwhile, Conservative Party donor Lord Cruddas, another outspoken backer of Johnson, urged his friend not to be “held to ransom” by the threat. “Don’t worry @BorisJohnson I can easily get your legal fees funded by supporters and crowd funding, it’s easy,” he wrote on Twitter.

On Thursday (1 June), the Cabinet Office missed Lady Hallett’s deadline to hand over the requested material. The government department has said it will resist the publication of messages it deems “unambiguously irrelevant” to the Covid Inquiry - arguing there are “important principles at stake”, such as the issue of privacy.

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