Govt on brink of legal action over Johnson’s WhatsApp message

Downing Street Policy & Politics Whitehall

The government has until 4pm today (June 1) to hand over Boris Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages to the Covid inquiry or face a court battle.

Head of the inquiry Baroness Hallett, a former judge, has warned of legal action if all of the documents – including Johnson’s WhatsApp messages, notebooks and official diaries are not provided.

Downing Street has so far refused to release what it considers to be “unambiguously irrelevant” material.

Earlier this week, the Cabinet Office claimed it did not have access to the messages, notebooks or official diaries before the previous deadline to hand them over to the inquiry was extended from Tuesday (May 30) to today (June 1).

Johnson’s spokesperson said yesterday (May 31) that all of his WhatsApp messages and notebooks “requested by the Covid inquiry has been handed to the Cabinet Office in full and in unredacted form.”

With today’s deadline looming, the spokesperson added: “Mr Johnson urges the Cabinet Office to urgently disclose it to the inquiry.”

It has since confirmed receipt of the information from the disgraced former prime minister and said it is examining it. However, Downing Street is continuing to oppose handing over the information to Hallett’s Covid inquiry.

The inquiry, led by the former judge, is yet to start but will examine the government’s handling of the Covid pandemic

Johnson said he will hand over the information – which includes text conversations with his former ministers, including current PM Rishi Sunak – to the Covid inquiry if he is asked to do so.

However, the Cabinet Office repeated its opposition to releasing the information. A spokesperson said: “We are firmly of the view that the inquiry does not have the power to request unambiguously irrelevant information that is beyond the scope of this investigation.

“This includes the WhatsApp messages of government employees which are not about work but instead are entirely personal and relate to their private lives.”

Downing Street refusal to confirm if the inquiry has asked for Sunak’s WhatsApp messages has intensified the row of a government “cover-up” before Hallett even begins to examine the evidence.

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner responded to the Cabinet Office’s earlier claims to not have access to Johnson’s information, before the deadline was extended, commenting that evidence has seemingly “gone missing”.

Rayner said: “It must be found and handed over as requested if the whiff of a cover-up is to be avoided and bereaved families are to get the answers they deserve.”

Energy security and net zero secretary Grant Shapps said this morning (June 1) that the government should hand over the material to the inquiry so that it can “get on with its job”.

Shapps told TalkTV that ministers have “nothing to be shy or embarrassed about” in their handling of the first pandemic in 100 years and said the inquiry should be given “whatever they want”.

“There are things which we did that were very good,” Shapps said. “Things will have gone wrong, naturally. The inquiry is there to get to the bottom of all of that.”

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