The British government is launching legal action against its own official Covid Inquiry with the aim of scuppering its demand for unredacted versions of Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and other private records from when he was prime minister.
The government, through the Cabinet Office, is seeking a High Court judicial review of the demand made by the inquiry’s chair, Baroness Heather Hallett.
She had given the government a deadline of 4pm on Thursday to provide full, unredacted access to the material, warning that it would be a criminal offence not to comply.
The Cabinet Office argues the inquiry is acting illegally by seeking private or irrelevant material, including “comments of a personal nature”. Instead, of meeting the deadline, it hit the inquiry with legal action.
Ms Hallett argues says she is best placed to judge whether any material is irrelevant or not, as she wants to examine the wider political context of the time. Mr Sunak’s advisers, meanwhile, are worried that if the government complies with the inquiry’s request, it sets a precedent that could see the current prime minister having to give up his own WhatsApps.
The material sought by the inquiry includes any of Mr Johnson’s WhatsApp messages between January 2020 and February 2022 that were exchanged with a series of named individuals, including then chancellor of the exchequer and current prime minister Rishi Sunak; Mr Johnson’s advisers including Dominic Cummings; and other senior ministers including Liz Truss and Matt Hancock. It also wants his WhatsApps with Simon Case, the cabinet secretary and head of the civil service.
In legal documents released by the Cabinet Office about an hour after the deadline passed, the government revealed that, in any event, it does not have access to any of Mr Johnson’s WhatsApp records from the period prior to May 2021. That is when he had to change his mobile phone number and device for security reasons after it emerged his old number was in the public domain for 15 years.
Mr Johnson suggested this week he had already handed over all the material to the Cabinet Office and urged it to send it on to the inquiry, suggesting he would so himself “if asked”.
However, in the legal documents, the Cabinet Office says it has not yet received a response from Mr Johnson in relation to handing over to it his phone messages from his old device, before May 2021.
The inquiry also wants full access to Mr Johnson’s ministerial diaries and all of his personal notebooks from his time as prime minister during the Covid crisis.
The Cabinet Office says it will hand over redacted versions of the material in the meantime, while it pursues High Court action. It said there are “important principles at stake” in relation to individual rights and “proper conduct of government”.
“The request for unambiguously irrelevant material goes beyond the powers of the inquiry,” it said. “It represents an unwarranted intrusion into other aspects of the work of government.
Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, accused the government of engaging in “smoke and mirror tactics” with its legal action. “The public deserve answers, not another cover-up,” she said.
Earlier, Mr Sunak said the government is “confident in our position but are carefully considering [the] next steps”.