Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson.
Rishi Sunak’s government has launched a legal battle against its own public inquiry into the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in an effort to stop the release of Boris Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages, diaries and personal notebooks.
The cabinet office, a government department which supports the work of the prime minister, said it was seeking a judicial review of inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett’s order to release the documents, arguing that it should not have to hand over material which is “unambiguously irrelevant”.
In a letter to the inquiry, released after a 4pm deadline to hand over the material, the cabinet office said it had provided “as much relevant information as possible, and as quickly as possible” in line with the order.
On Wednesday, the former PM Johnson said he had handed his unredacted WhatsApp messages and notebooks to the cabinet office and called on the government to “urgently disclose” the material to the inquiry.
But the next day’s announcement suggested not everything was as it appeared.
In her statement, senior civil servant Ellie Nicholson said the cabinet office had received Johnson’s WhatsApp messages on Wednesday afternoon and was reviewing the material “for national security sensitivities and unambiguously irrelevant material, and appropriate redactions are being applied”.
Nicholson’s statement said: “I understand that this is because, in April 2021, in light of a well-publicised security breach, Mr Johnson implemented security advice relating to the mobile phone he had had up until that time.”
Johnson was forced to change his mobile in 2021 after it emerged his number had been publicly available online for 15 years.
Cabinet Office confirm they're defying the Covid Inquiry and launching a Judicial Review pic.twitter.com/OLoSKYHEOA
— Paul Waugh (@paulwaugh) June 1, 2023
The documents are likely to include text conversations between Johnson and a host of government figures – including Sunak, who was chancellor during the pandemic and was also handed down a fine for lockdown rule-breaking alongside his predecessor.
It is highly unusual for a government to take legal action against its own inquiry.
Johnson’s notebooks will be shared with the inquiry in batches as the Cabinet Office did not have enough time to redact them after they were handed over, the inquiry was told.
Johnson, in his own letter to the inquiry on Thursday evening after the legal proceedings were launched, offered to hand over the requested material directly.
He wrote: “I agree with the Cabinet Office position that in principle advice to ministers should not be made public. That is clearly essential for the effective running of the country and for the impartiality of the civil service.
“I am simply making a practical point: that I see no reason why the inquiry should not be able to satisfy itself about the contents of my own Whatsapps (sic) and notebooks, and to check the relevant Whatsapp (sic) conversations (about 40 of them) for anything that it deems relevant to the Covid inquiry.”
A spokesman for the Covid-19 inquiry said: “At 4pm today the chair of the UK Covid-19 public inquiry was served a copy of a claim form by the Cabinet Office seeking to commence judicial review proceedings against the chair’s ruling of May 22 2023.
“Further information will be provided at the module two preliminary hearing at 10.30am on June 6.”