Boris Johnson is back in the headlines with the former British prime minister finding himself at the center of a legal row between the UK government and the inquiry the government itself commissioned into its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The inquiry recently requested that it be given access to the private messages of a number of government officials – including Johnson. That request was made to the Cabinet Office, an important government department that supports the PM and the cabinet in nearly all areas of government.
The Cabinet Office, on the authority of current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, pushed back with legal action on this request, citing the precedent it sets for frank conversations being made between government officials on policy in the future.
On Friday, Johnson went around the Cabinet Office and published a letter in which he agreed to share his personal WhatsApp messages and handwritten notebooks directly with the inquiry.
“The government yesterday decided to take legal action. It was not my decision to do so. While I understand the government’s position, I am not willing to let my material become a test case for others when I am perfectly content for the inquiry to see it,” Johnson said in his letter to the inquiry.
Johnson also said he would be happy to hand over information on an old phone of his, which he stopped using after it was revealed the number had been available to the public for years online. Johnson says that security services told him never to turn the phone back on, but that he wants to go against that advice in order to provide the inquiry with as much information as possible.
If Johnson, the man most likely to be embarrassed by these messages, is relaxed about them being handed over, why isn’t the government?
The official Cabinet Office position is that it is questioning whether an inquiry should have the legal authority to make such sweeping demands.
In its letter to the inquiry, the government’s legal team said that while it supported the inquiry’s work, it wanted to question “specifically whether the Inquiry has the power to compel production of documents and messages which are unambiguously irrelevant to the Inquiry’s work, including personal communications and matters unconnected to the government’s handling of Covid. We consider there to be important issues of principle at stake here, affecting both the rights of individuals and the proper conduct of government.”
Government officials told CNN that the questions around conduct of government are the primary concern: If ministers cannot discuss policy matters as frankly and freely as possible for fear of private messages being read out of context, will the quality of their work suffer?
They also said privacy was a concern: If a civil servant was working from home during the pandemic and was talking to their boss, a minister, about a personal issue in between conversations about work, they did so on the assumption that information would remain private.
The opposition Labour Party has accused the government of trying to cover up information that might embarrass ministers.
Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, said in a statement that “Rishi Sunak is hopelessly distracted with legal ploys to obstruct the Covid Inquiry in a desperate attempt to withhold evidence … (he) must comply with the Covid Inquiry’s requests for evidence in full. There can be no more excuses.”
The Cabinet Office and Downing Street deny that the prime minister is withholding information for any reason other than those officially stated.
Johnson’s intervention makes life hard for Sunak now. While Johnson is not the only person whose information is of interest to the inquiry, it could be the most embarrassing for Sunak and anyone serving in his government who also served under Johnson.
Johnson has, allies say, moved on and is not interested in a return to frontline politics. Sunak was one of many in government now who served in Johnson’s government. Indeed, he was also fined by police for breaching Covid rules at the same event as Johnson.
Sunak and his team are focused on the future. But the specter of Johnson and the scandals during his time in office still loom over the governing Conservative party. And if the government’s actions were political, it would be nothing short of a spectacular own goal that instead of moving on, they have drawn such attention to a period of time they would rather the public forgot.