Boris Johnson may be in the US this week, but his shadow has been cast long over Westminster. A fresh row has broken out in the Conservative Party over new allegations of Covid lockdown breaches by the former prime minister, while the government has also been threatened with legal action by its own official Covid inquiry for withholding Mr Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and diaries.
The whiff of scandal attached to Mr Johnson has returned at a particularly bad time for the current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, as he tries to smooth over relations with the restless right wing of his party. MPs aligned to the wing are angry at sharp increases in immigration figures that are due to be announced on Thursday and also the handling of a separate ethics row involving Suella Braverman, the home secretary and right-wing standard bearer.
The confluence of various issues presents a major challenge for Mr Sunak as he struggles to maintain party unity, with the Tories appearing once again to be sliding into a pit of rancour.
Events moved at speed in Westminster on Wednesday after it emerged the previous night in the Times that Mr Johnson had been referred to the police by the government over fresh suspicions that he may have breached Covid rules by hosting guests at his Chequers residence during lockdowns in 2020 and 2021.
The latest row was sparked after government-appointed lawyers, who were already acting for Mr Johnson in a separate Downing Street Covid breach investigation, passed on to the cabinet office copies of his ministerial diaries that showed he also received guests at Chequers during restrictions.
Under the civil service code, the cabinet office confirmed that earlier this month it had referred the matter on to the London Metropolitan and Thames Valley police forces, sparking a furious response from Mr Johnson’s allies, who claim he is the victim of a “stitch-up”.
His sister, journalist Rachel Johnson, and his close political ally, the Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, came forward on Wednesday to confirm they were among those named in his ministerial diary as having gone to see him at Chequers during lockdowns, but both claimed their visits were conducted within the rules.
Mr Johnson, who was forced out of 10 Downing Street last year over the allegations of lockdown parties there, has denied any wrongdoing. He has sacked the lawyers who passed on his diaries to the cabinet office and wants the government to pay for a new legal team directly appointed by him.
The Daily Telegraph has reported that allies of Mr Johnson are threatening to damage Mr Sunak politically unless he steps in to protect the former prime minister. They also accuse Mr Sunak’s government of involvement in the decision to hand over of the diaries as part of a politically-motivated attack on Mr Johnson. The cabinet office and a spokesman for Mr Sunak have both denied any ministerial involvement in the decision to involve the police.
The Telegraph also reported that MPs allied to Mr Johnson, including Nadine Dorries, Nigel Adams and Alok Sharma, could step down early in advance of the next election and force by-elections that would be difficult for Mr Sunak’s party to win.
In a separate headache for Mr Sunak, it also emerged on Wednesday that Heather Hallett, the baroness chairing the government’s official Covid inquiry, is demanding the government give her access to Mr Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and 24 diaries he maintained while prime minister.
It is believed the messages that she is seeking include some exchanged with Mr Sunak, who was then chancellor of the exchequer, former health secretary Matt Hancock, and also Dominic Cummings, a former adviser to Mr Johnson who later fell out with him.
The cabinet office is resisting passing the messages and diaries to Ms Hallett’s inquiry, which it says would be a “serious intrusion of privacy”. However, she has threatened the government with legal action unless she gets then by 4pm next Tuesday.