Boris Johnson’s messages are just the start of it: the government is run on WhatsApp

<span>Photograph: Houses of Parliament Restoration and Renewal Programme/PA</span>
Photograph: Houses of Parliament Restoration and Renewal Programme/PA

What are WhatsApps? No, really, what are they? This may sound like a question asked by an increasingly puzzled grandad at Christmas, but it has become central to British politics.

Westminster has, over the past few weeks, waited with bated breath to see if the messages sent to and from ministers during the pandemic would be handed over to the Covid inquiry. Heather Hallett, who is running the investigation, demanded that the full cache be released before the public evidence sessions began, but to no avail. Boris Johnson has said he has given his messages to the Cabinet Office, which decided on Thursday afternoon to launch legal action to avoid having to pass them on.

If we care about the way that government is run and how records are kept, the three-way tussle between the inquiry chair, mandarins and the former prime minister about whether these messages can remain private concerns all of us.

As everyone who follows British politics will know, WhatsApp is now where most discussions are had. It’s used by MPs needing to talk to ministers, by whips’ offices trying to keep their benches in check, by journalists confidently talking to their sources, and by everyone else for gossip and general tittle-tattle. Coups against serving prime ministers have been organised in WhatsApp groups and so have leadership campaigns and rebellions on parliamentary votes. The story’s quite simple, really: over the past decade, WhatsApp has taken over Westminster.

Still, the question remains: what are WhatsApps? How should the messages be treated? Are they official correspondence? Should they be subject to freedom of information requests? Have they replaced more formal emails? Should they? As is often the case with sweeping technological advances, the world changed so quickly that no one had time to stop and ask about the wider ramifications of it all.

Last year, the Institute for Government called on “the prime minister to uphold guidance stating ministers, special advisers and officials should not use personal phones for substantive government business”. It was hardly a radical demand, but it knew there wasn’t much more it could ask for. The horse was already long gone, there was little point in closing the stable doors.

Transparency campaigners have spent some years arguing that the wholesale move to WhatsApp in British politics is dangerous, and they aren’t exactly wrong. Quick, round-the-clock, private messaging is not a proper way to run a government. Still, it is worth wondering if they are entirely right, and if the WhatsApp supremacy may not be symptomatic of a wider and older problem.

Scandals about WhatsApp may be eyecatching, but that is – perhaps ironically – because they are bringing a previously hidden part of politics into the public eye. Not long ago, a lot of the conversations now happening online were not taking place through official channels, but face to face on and around the parliamentary estate, with no scrutiny whatsoever.

Heather Hallett, chair of the covid inquiry
Heather Hallett has demanded that the full cache of WhatsApp messages be released before the Covid inquiry’s public evidence sessions begin. Photograph: UK Parliament/PA

Ministers went to the tearooms to speak to their backbench colleagues; hacks haunted the bars to try to pick up some stories; would-be rebels met in each other’s offices to start plotting. There wasn’t any meaningful way to find out what was really going on behind the scenes at any given point, as so much of it happened entirely informally.

In a paper on the importance of informal spaces in politics, the professor of government Philip Norton wrote that “space within legislatures is not distributed randomly. It is the product of political choice.” Because the Palace of Westminster was at least partly modelled on gentlemen’s clubs, it naturally encourages camaraderie and private asides. As Churchill once noted, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

Of course, circumstances can also alter human behaviour. In this case, the change was threefold. First, MPs are now expected to spend more time in their constituencies and away from Westminster than they once did. Second, the times at which they vote was changed some years ago, meaning that they do not need to spend as much time on the estate as previously. Finally – and you may well remember this one – the pandemic meant that everyone was stuck at home for months on end, and thus only able to communicate digitally. As a result, parliamentarians ended up taking a lot of their personal conversations online, and the waters between professional and personal conversations were muddied further. The rest is, if not quite history yet, then certainly this week’s headlines.

This doesn’t mean widespread WhatsApp use shouldn’t be a concern. MPs should be allowed to speak freely to one another without worrying about the messages eventually getting out, but they must also understand that the line between official business and personal chatter has become too thin for comfort. Good governance does require a level of formality, and the government must act in a way that means it can be held accountable. WhatsApp is now so ingrained in British political culture that simply telling MPs to refrain from messaging one another won’t quite cut it.

The availability of technology will always influence the way people behave but smartphone apps are, ultimately, nothing but a tool. If we are serious about trying to change the behaviour of our politicians, their surroundings are what we should turn our attention to. Perhaps one way to drastically alter the way future generations of politicians communicate would be to finally make them leave the Palace of Westminster so it can be renovated.

It wouldn’t be an immediate shift, as only new intakes would benefit from the more professionally suited surroundings, but it would be worth it. Technology will keep evolving whatever happens – thinking differently may be the only way to deal with it.

  • Marie Le Conte is a French journalist living in London