Oakeshott v Hancock: 10 things to know about #thelockdownfiles — from her record of betrayal to the broken NDA
Be careful what you share on WhatsApp and never let Isabel Oakeshott in on a big secret if you don’t want it being leaked to the world.
So far, these appear to be the main learnings from the latest political scandal that is The Lockdown Files, a major expose of the government’s handling of the pandemic published by Oakeshott, a political journalist, in The Telegraph this week — or at least they probably are for Matt Hancock, who is quickly discovering the cold, hard reality of what it means to be thrown to the wolves by the woman he trusted to be his ghostwriter.
The extraordinary drip-feed of revelations dubbed #thelockdownfiles comprises of more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages — 2.3 million words — between then-health secretary Hancock and other ministers at the height of the pandemic in what is quickly becoming the biggest leak of data involving the Government since the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal.
Officials’ true feelings on care home deaths, testing, school closures and face masks are among the biggest bombshells to come to light so far — and Oakeshott suggests there are plenty more to come. “There is plenty of things I could say about his behaviour, that I’m not going to do... at least at this stage,” she told Nick Robinson on the Today Programme this week, claiming Hancock sent her a threatening message following the publication of files.
Hancock isn’t the only former minister who comes off badly as Oakeshott continues to twist the knife. Then-prime minister Boris Johnson and former education secretary Gavin Williamson are among the ministers whose controversial WhatsApp exchanges are being revealed, but neither politician is likely to be feeling quite as nervous as Hancock, who famously thanked Oakeshott for her “tenacity at getting [him] to remember the most telling detail” and her “gift in improving [his] drafting to create a compelling account” in his memoir, released in December.
Questions are naturally being asked about who comes off worse in this week’s Hancock v Oakeshott face-off. Was Hancock really enough of a “bloody idiot” to give Oakeshott access to his WhatsApps? Did he really assume she’d be happy to write the memoir without being paid? And could he really be so naive as to think she was trustworthy, as a self-described “scoop getter and feather ruffler”with a track record for poor source protection who is in a relationship with the leader of the anti-lockdown Reform party?
“The main lesson I’ve learned from this is not to hire someone who absolutely hates your signature policy as your ghostwriter,” thinktank director Robert Colvile put it crudely this week.
I'm a bit surprised anyone would trust Isabel Oakeshott with their story hoping not to get burnt - after Chris Huhne's wife did the same and ended up in prison. But I suppose that also says something about Matt Hancock's judgment
— Etan Smallman (@EtanSmallman) March 1, 2023
So how did Hancock and Oakeshott’s working relationship turn so sour? Was public interest really her motive behind the leaks? And which other ministers and former ministers are nervously scrolling through their WhatsApp records in anticipation of the leaks to come?
Here are the key facts you need to know about the most salacious political storm of 2023.
This isn’t the first time Oakeshott has betrayed a source
Oakeshott’s poor track record of protecting sources is well-documented. In 2011, Vicky Pryce — ex-wife of former Lib Dem cabinet minister Chris Huhne — famously told Oakeshott, then political editor of the Sunday Times, that she had once taken speeding points on behalf of her ex-husband, who had since left her after an affair with an aide.
The events that followed have become a cautionary tale for journalists and their sources: Oakeshott and Pryce discussed the best way to deploy the information in follow-up emails and Oakeshott told Pryce the chances of her being prosecuted were low; Oakeshott published a front page story; and when police requested the correspondence between Oakeshott and Pryce, Oakeshott obliged. The email chain proved to be crucial evidence at trials and Pryce ended up being sent to jail for eight months alongside her ex-husband for conspiring to mislead the police about a speeding offence.
The Lockdown Files are not the first time Oakeshott has shared private messages provided to her by a public figure for ghostwriting purposes, either. In 2016, she was given access to Leave.EU founder Arron Banks’ text messages and emails as part of helping to write his book, Bad Boys of Brexit. Two years later, she shared then-unpublished correspondence with the Sunday Times.
“I’m a bit surprised anyone would trust Isabel Oakeshott with their story hoping not to get burnt — after Chris Huhne’s wife did the same and ended up in prison,” commentator Etan Smallman tweeted this week. “But I suppose that also says something about Matt Hancock’s judgment.”
She wasn’t paid to ghostwrite Hancock’s book
Not only did Hancock trust Oakeshott to write his memoir, he reportedly didn’t pay her — despite securing a £100,000 book deal and being paid a further £48,000 for its serialisation in a newspaper.
Oakeshott appeared content with the decision at the time, writing in the Spectator that she was “not paid a penny” for the year she’d spent ghostwriting the book, but that it “was richly rewarding in other ways”.
Now we know what was likely to have been the real reason. Just three months later, she turned the knife on Hancock, taking the hundreds of thousands of unpublished WhatsApp messages Hancock had shared with her straight to the editors at The Telegraph.
Oakeshott has refused to reveal how much The Telegraph paid her for the scoop. “Anyone who thinks I did this for money must be insane,” she said this week, defending her decision.
Oakeshott gave a clue that she might betray Hancock back in December
When Hancock’s book was published in December, she concluded that he had worked “phenomenally hard to do what he felt was best” during the pandemic, and that any mistakes he and his Government had made were “made in good faith”. So why did she go on to throw him under a bus less than three months later?
Some clues, if there are any, might lie in a column she wrote for the Spectator at the time. “Some of my lockdown confidantes suggested it was a betrayal and that he should be punished, perhaps viciously so.” Does she see the lockdown files his punishment?
Or perhaps the real answer lies in her reasoning as to why she decided to work with Hancock, despite disagreeing with his handling of the pandemic. “Journalists don’t only interrogate people they agree with,” she wrote. “Quite the reverse. I wanted to get to the truth. What better way to find out what really happened – who said what to whom; the driving force and thinking behind key policies and decisions; who (if anyone) dissented; and how they were crushed – than to align myself with the key player? I might not get the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but I’d certainly get a good dollop of it, and a keen sense of anything murky requiring further investigation.”
Oakeshott goes on to reveal that Hancock shared “far more” than she could ever have imagined during the ghostwriting process. “I have viewed thousands and thousands of sensitive government communications relating to the pandemic, a fascinating and very illuminating exercise,” she writes. This week, we can finally see what she means.
She chose to leak the WhatsApps to The Telegraph, despite working for a rival
Whatever your opinion on the Government’s handling of the pandmeic, the revelations in the files are undoubtedly a treasure trove: more than 100,000 personal WhatsApp messages — 2.3 million words —between then-senior members of the UK Government during the worst public health crisis in a generation.
So why did Oakeshott — currently International Editor at News UK’s struggling Talk TV channel — choose to hand that trove to The Telegraph? As an employee of Rupert Murdoch’s New UK, one might have expected her to share the story with one of the company’s own titles, The Times or The Sun. She is rumoured to be being paid a six-figure salary by the firm, but as a freelancer, Oakeshott says she free to work for other publications.
She has insisted she didn’t leak the WhatsApps for money, so perhaps it is security, then, that drew her to The Telegraph. “You might speculate that the Telegraph has given Oakeshott a fee and agreed to support her legally,” solicitor and legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg told Sky News this week.
The leaks broke a legal NDA
Sure, Oakeshott had access to plenty of salacious content as background information for writing Hancock’s book. Most ghostwriters do, that’s how ghostwriting works — they just have to sign a legally-binding NDA (non-disclosure agreement) to keep the information confidential.
Oakeshott is so abysmal she's actually made me feel defensive about Hancock, something I would have never dreamed possible.
— Ian Dunt (@IanDunt) March 2, 2023
So why did Oakeshott feel she was able to break it in this case — and will she be sued? The answer depends on the contract she signed, and how much money Hancock has to take on The Telegraph. NDAs can be one-way or mutual and in most cases they last between three and five years, so it’s unlikely the NDA has expired just three months after publication.
Breaking such a contract has legal consequences. Experts say Hancock may choose to send a cease-and-desist letter to stop any further disclosures. If that doesn’t work, he could sue Oakeshott and The Telegraph for damages or get a court injunction, which would put the newspaper at risk of an unlimited fine or prison sentence.
Court injunctions can be costly, however, which is likely to be the reason Oakeshott chose The Telegraph. She will be better protected with a major newspaper behind her. “Ultimately it’s a contract, you sign it, and if you break it you can be sued,” says Rozenberg. The problem for Hancock, he says, is “the Telegraph has more money than he does.”
Oakeshott claims the leaks are in the public interest and not “personal”
Critics of Oakeshott on Twitter say her decision to break the NDA not only makes her a “shameless weasel”, but also points to “a complete collapse in basic journalistic standards”.
But Oakeshott says she made the leaks as a matter of “overwhelming” public interest as she feared that the official Covid inquiry was taking too long and could “become a colossal whitewash”. “I know I’m going to get a few knocks over this... I’m prepared to do this because I think the national interest is so utterly compelling,” she told TV host Piers Morgan earlier this week.
She repeated the same sentiment to Nick Robinson on the BBC’s Today Programme. “I make no apology.... This is about the millions of people, every one of us in this country, that were adversely affected by the catastrophic decisions to lock down this country repeatedly, often on the flimsiest of evidence, for political reasons.
Can’t wait for JR Moehringer to give Prince Harry’s WhatsApps to the Telegraph
— John Crace (@JohnJCrace) March 1, 2023
“Not one journalist worth their salt would sit on a cache of information in such an important matter, such a historic matter and cover that up. Do you know what would have happened if I hadn’t released this stuff? The usual suspects would have had a massive go at me for sitting on these files, wouldn’t they? We know that.”
Asked by Robinson why she had broken the former health secretary’s trust, she continued: “I would describe myself as somebody who is acting in the overwhelming national interest” — but many are sceptical. If it was in the public interest, why didn’t Oakeshott bring this information into the public domain before Hancock’s book was published?
Hancock sent Oakeshott a “menacing” message after the leaks
Clearly, Hancock is furious. A source close to the former health secretary has called Oakeshott’s behaviour “outrageous” and Hancock himself has said he is “hugely disappointed” in the “massive betrayal and breach of trust”.
On Wednesday, Oakeshott revealed that Hancock had sent her a “menacing message” at 1.20am that morning. “I’m not going to repeat what was in the message,” she told Piers Morgan. “You can easily surmise if he is my friend at this point. He is extremely troubled about how to respond to this.”
This morning, she told a separate interview: “he can threaten me all he likes, there are plenty of things I can say about his behaviour by the way that I’m not going to do, at least a this stage, because this is not about Matt Hancock, it is so much bigger than that. Trust me, there’s plenty I can say.”
Hancock has since denied sending Oakeshott a menacing message. “When I heard confused rumours of a publication late on Tuesday night, I called and messaged Isabel to ask her if she had ‘any clues’ about it, and got no response. When I then saw what she’d done, I messaged to say it was ‘a big mistake’. Nothing more.”
Oakeshott’s partner is an anti-lockdown campaigner
As with any political storm, context is important. Hancock’s spokesman claims that Oakeshott’s leaks have been “spun to fit [the] anti-lockdown narrative” for which she has long been known. “This country paid a catastrophic price for what I see as a reckless overreaction to a disease that was only life-threatening to a small number of people who could have been protected without imprisoning the entire population,” Oakeshott wrote last year.
Commentators have also been quick to point to the fact that the right-wing journalist is in a long-term relationship with Richard Tice, the leader of the Reform party; a rebranded version of Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. She and Tice have appeared as co-hosts of various programmes on TalkTV, recently interviewing Kwasi Kwarteng together.
Was Oakeshott’s leak tactically timed to help her partner steal votes from the Tories at the next election?
Hancock could be in trouble for sharing the WhatsApps with Oakeshott
It’s not just Oakeshott who Hancock is likely to be feeling wary of. Several of his former colleages come off badly in the leaks, from Williamson claiming that teaching unions “really really do just hate work” to Johnson comparing over-65s dying from Covid with them falling down the stairs.
Several of his former colleagues have been quick to criticise Hancock for sharing these WhatsApps with Oakeshott, in spite of the NDA. WhatsApp messages are not considered classified, so their publication does not break any criminal law, but in theory it does breach parts of the ministerial code.
When ministers leave the job, the ministerial code states that they must hand over any communications they had while in-post and then delete the records from their phone — something Hancock clearly didn’t do. “It’s pushing the boundaries of what the Cabinet Office would approve of to have shared that many messages with a journalist — even if they weren’t intended for publication,” says Dr Catherine Haddon, senior fellow at the Institute for Government.
Haddon says it seems “unlikely” the Government would be able to enforce any action against Hancock for this, but she believes “most people in government will see the fault line with Matt Hancock for sharing those messages with a journalist”, adding: “[The lockdown files show] we need a complete re-look at how both the government does business over WhatsApp, the line between personal and political communications, and the access former ministers have to government records.”
Oakeshott says she has more up her sleeve
Oakeshott insists the leaks are “not a personal thing about Matt Hancock” and that “it is so much bigger than that”.
She said she would not get involved in a “slanging match” with the former health minister “because it wouldn’t be pretty” — but she has also hinted that her drip-feed of revelations against him aren’t over yet. “He can threaten me all he likes, there are plenty of things I can say about his behaviour by the way that I’m not going to do... at least a this stage,” she said ominously this week. Hold tight.
Hancock calls Oakeshott’s ongoing leaks a “massive betrayal and breach of trust” but public sympathy is, naturally, in short supply. As the minister who became famous for betraying his wife amidst a nationwide lockdown that he imposed himself, perhaps this is the moment he finally discovered what it’s like to be on the other side.