Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that he will hand over the unmodified WhatsApp messages he shared with the government office to the Covid-19 investigation on Friday.
In a letter to inquiry chair Baroness Heather Hallett, she added that she wanted to hand over other relevant material, including correspondence about her old mobile phone, if she could get access to it.
The decision to bypass the Cabinet Office is a blow to Rishi Sunak’s government, which said on Thursday it would take legal action against the inquiry on privacy grounds to prevent the unredacted release of what it said was “clearly irrelevant”. .
The material in question relates to WhatsApp messages sent by Johnson when he was prime minister during the Covid outbreak; Hallett argued that it was up to him to decide whether the material was relevant or not.
It emerged on Thursday that Johnson had only handed over his WhatsApp messages for the period after May 2021, when the former prime minister announced the Covid investigation. The Cabinet Office explained that Johnson got a new phone after a serious security flaw was discovered on his old device in April 2021.
But in a letter to Hallett on Friday, Johnson said he would share “all unredacted WhatsApp” with the Cabinet Office “in unredacted form today”. He added that he wanted to “do the same” with “relevant material” from his old device, which he “was previously told I could no longer safely access”.
Earlier this week, Johnson’s allies said the former prime minister still had his old phone but was told by security services never to turn it on. Officials said they were happy to retrieve any messages from the device as long as it could be done “without compromising security”.
“I have requested assistance from the Cabinet Office to enable secure access to locate all relevant material,” Johnson’s letter said.
The former prime minister said he understood the government’s decision to take legal action against the inquiry, but argued he was “unwilling” to allow his material to “become a test case for others”.
Although he no longer has physical access to his notebooks because they were removed by the Cabinet Office, Johnson said he asked the department to forward them to the investigation as well. “If the government decides not to do so, I will ask that these be returned to my office so that I can make them available directly to you,” he added.
The then prime minister was forced to hand over his old phone in April 2021 after it was discovered that his number had been available on the internet for 15 years – a think tank attached to an old press release.
Sun’s reluctance to hand over all the material Hallett has requested has dominated a quiet week of news in Westminster, allowing opposition parties to suggest the prime minister has something to hide.
While serving as chancellor during the pandemic, Sunak was skeptical of the closures and warned of the economic damage they would cause. He also supported the controversial Eat Out to Help Out program.
Labor claims Sunak is trying to stop the release of Johnson’s WhatsApp messages because the prime minister fears the inquiry will – at a later stage – require him to hand over his own messages and those of other cabinet ministers.
Meanwhile, a government minister admitted that Sunak’s legal action is likely to fail.
Science Minister George Freeman told the BBC that “the courts are likely to take the view” that Hallett is “perfectly entitled and empowered to decide what he wants”.
Freeman is speaking on the BBC Question time On Thursday night, he disagreed with suggestions that the legal action was a “cynical waste of time”, adding that he would clarify the need to protect the privacy of ministers and officials.
But he added: “I have little doubt that the courts will find that Baroness Hallett will decide what evidence she thinks is relevant and then we will proceed.”
Former Downing Street chief of staff Lord Gavin Barwell argued on Friday that the government was making a “bad mistake” in the case, telling the BBC: “It is important that we get to the truth”.
In a further reminder of the controversy that continues to dog Johnson, the Prime Minister’s Office last month referred the former prime minister to the police over possible further breaches of coronavirus restrictions when he was in No 10.
Johnson vehemently denies any wrongdoing, and allies have suggested they are trying to smear him. The relationship between the former prime minister and Sunak is cold.
Johnson’s supporters say he wants to “keep his options open” for a possible return to the Conservative Party, although very few Tory MPs believe that is likely ahead of next year’s election.
However, if Sunak loses the election and the Conservatives enter another leadership race, Johnson’s name is likely to emerge as a potential candidate.