Covid inquiry legal fight: a sideshow to broader quarrel about WhatsApp

Good morning. What is the government’s legal battle with the official Covid-19 public inquiry really about?

The story that some of Boris Johnson’s allies want to tell is that it is about the relationship between Johnson and Rishi Sunak, but that isn’t quite right.

The line that Labour is running with is that it shows that both the prime minister and his predecessor-but-one are trying to frustrate the inquiry. There is something in that, but it isn’t quite right either.

What the row is really about is how decisions are made at the heart of government, and the cabinet office’s role as the place that Whitehall’s secrets go to die. Some more thoughts on that in today’s note.

Mr Sandman, bring me a court order

What’s at stake in the official inquiry into the UK’s preparation for, handling of, and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic?

In solely political terms, the answer is “not much”. Here are the important parts of the inquiry’s aims and terms of reference:

Examine the Covid-19 response and the impact of the pandemic in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and produce a factual narrative account.

Identify the lessons to be learned from the above, to inform preparations for future pandemics across the UK.

The inquiry itself is not going to turn around and say “as a general point of good hygiene, don’t make Boris Johnson prime minister again”, though that opinion is essentially the settled will of the majority of Conservative MPs now. Nor is it going to unearth anything more damning about Rishi Sunak’s role in the pandemic than anything the prime minister himself has freely declared. Sunak has openly spoken about his role as the cabinet’s biggest and most influential lockdown sceptic, and he is, after all, the man behind Eat Out to Help Out.

If there is a politically explosive story to come out of the Covid-19 inquiry, it will be what, if anything, it tells us about the functioning of devolution during the pandemic. The biggest revelation will be on the potential lessons from that, rather than the rows within the Conservative party and cabinet.

I’m not saying that those other issues are unimportant: in policy terms they may matter a great deal! I’m just saying that the government’s legal action should be understood as a broader issue than the handling of the pandemic.

Why? Well, the reason why the government is trying to prevent the Covid-19 inquiry from acquiring Johnson’s WhatsApp messages is not so much because of anything that Johnson has said. Nor is it really because the precedent set about Johnson will apply to how this inquiry handles Sunak’s WhatsApp messages. Instead, the government’s decision to seek a judicial review is because of a broader concern about how WhatsApp will be treated in the future.

The cabinet office, the department at the centre of all this, has a double role. The first is that it is the closest thing the UK gets to a prime minister’s department. Its job is to serve the will and the interests of the sitting prime minister and to act accordingly. The second is that it is the place that Whitehall’s dirtiest secrets are buried. (Chris Cook set all of this out brilliantly in the Britain After Brexit newsletter.)

What this is really about is resisting any attempt to make WhatsApp, Signal and other informal lines of communication available to be scrutinised after the fact. Secrecy is the default setting of British governments, regardless of who is in power, and that is particularly true of the cabinet office.

There is a separate question about the precise consequences of the proliferation of WhatsApp across Whitehall and Westminster. As it happens, the government’s secret-keepers, ministers, special advisers and the Institute for Government think-tank all broadly agree on the emergence of the trend, though they disagree on whether or not this is a good thing. Here’s the key paragraph from the IfG’s report on WhatsApp in Whitehall:

Government decision-making has long been a mix of the formal and informal. Generations of ministers have made sure to arrive early to cabinet to try to sway their colleagues before the official minute-takers arrive, or host dinners to thrash out political difficulties — these informal aspects of government have always been common. The speed and accessibility of WhatsApp, however, have accentuated these informal ways of working and exacerbated their problems — namely that decisions can be made too quickly without the full facts or without sufficient input from key individuals.

It’s really only that last sentence about the problems that separates the IfG view from the one inside government here. The argument I hear most frequently from special advisers and ministers is that communication by WhatsApp makes the informal discussions that have always taken place quicker and more efficient. They worry that the consequence of this inquiry will be that the government will make decisions more slowly and be less effective. The concern set out in the IfG’s report is that these faster decisions are likely to be poorly thought-through and badly implemented, and that the spread of applications such as WhatsApp has significantly increased the amount of governing that takes place through informal channels.

I’m not convinced on either count. WhatsApp is used much, much more across government in 2023 than it was from 2010 to 2014, the last period when the Conservative government really could be said to have a rich and varied policy agenda. I’m not persuaded that more recent years have seen governments that move faster and make better use of informal channels, for good or for ill.

The questions that actually matter as far as WhatsApp and government are concerned are these: is the proliferation of WhatsApp resulting in a thinner official record than we had in 2010, making it harder for future officials and politicians to learn from what went before? And should the political class have a reasonable expectation that WhatsApp conversations about work should be more private than that of anyone whose work is regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority?

Perhaps those questions themselves ought to be the subject of an inquiry.

Now try this

I’m off on holiday next week: I’m taking a leaf out of Henry Mance’s book and travelling by train to Paris for a few days, then taking another train to Milan for a friend’s wedding. Don’t worry, though: Inside Politics will be written by a fantastic guest cast of some of our brightest and best journalists. See you a week on Monday, and however you spend it, have a fantastic weekend!

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