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Johnson to give unredacted WhatsApp messages directly to Covid inquiry

Former UK prime minister Boris Johnson has said he will give the Covid-19 inquiry on Friday his unredacted WhatsApp messages shared with the Cabinet Office, in a swipe at Rishi Sunak.

Johnson added in a letter to inquiry chair Baroness Heather Hallett that he would like to hand over other “relevant” material, including correspondence from his old mobile phone, if he can obtain access to it.

The decision to bypass the Cabinet Office will serve as a blow to Sunak’s government, which on Thursday said it would take legal action, on privacy grounds, against the inquiry to stop the unredacted release of what it considers to be “unambiguously irrelevant” material.

The material in question relates to WhatsApp messages sent by Johnson while he was prime minister during the Covid pandemic; Hallett has argued that she should decide whether or not material is relevant.

Johnson said in his letter he was more than willing to help. “You have quite properly decided to leave no stone unturned in your search for the truth about government decision making during the pandemic,” he wrote.

However, Johnson has not so far handed over all of his records. It emerged on Thursday that Johnson had only handed over WhatsApp messages for the period after May 2021, the point at which the former premier announced the Covid inquiry.

The Cabinet Office explained that Johnson had acquired a new phone after a major security breach on his old device was discovered in April 2021, more than a year after Covid struck Britain.

Johnson’s allies say the former premier will hand over “relevant” old messages if the phone can be reactivated in a secure fashion.

Johnson also said in his letter that he would directly hand over to Hallett “about 40” WhatsApp conversations dating from May 2021, which he had previously given to the Cabinet Office.

Government insiders pointed out that it was not clear whether those 40 or so messages represented a complete record of all the material sought by the Hallett inquiry.

Johnson said in his letter that he understood the government’s decision to take legal action against the inquiry but argued that he was “unwilling” to allow his material to “become a test case for others”.

While Johnson said he no longer has physical access to his notebooks as they were removed by the Cabinet Office, he said that he had asked the department to also pass them on to the inquiry.

“If the government chooses not to do so, I will ask for these to be returned to my office so that I can provide them to you directly,” he added.

Sunak’s reluctance to hand over all of the material requested by Hallett has allowed opposition parties to suggest that the prime minister has something to hide.

While serving as chancellor during the pandemic, Sunak was sceptical about lockdowns, warning of the economic damage they would cause. He also championed the controversial Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

Labour claims that Sunak is trying to stop the release of Johnson’s WhatsApp messages because the prime minister fears Hallett will — at a later stage — demand that he hands over his own messages, along with those of other serving cabinet ministers.

Meanwhile, a government minister has admitted that Sunak’s legal action is likely to fail.

George Freeman, science minister, told the BBC that “courts will probably take the view” that Hallett was “perfectly entitled and empowered to decide whatever she wants”.

Freeman, speaking on the BBC’s Question Time on Thursday night, disagreed with suggestions that the legal move was a “cynical waste of time”, adding that it would clarify the need to protect the privacy of ministers and officials.

But he added: “I absolutely have very little doubt that the courts will find that Baroness Hallett will decide what evidence she deems relevant, and then we’ll get on with it.”

Former Downing Street chief of staff Lord Gavin Barwell on Friday argued that the government was “making a bad mistake” over the matter, telling the BBC: “It’s important we get to the truth.” 

As a further reminder of the controversy that continues to dog Johnson, the Cabinet Office referred the former prime minister to the police last month over further potential breaches of coronavirus restrictions during his time in Number 10.

Johnson vehemently denies that any rules were broken and his allies have suggested there is an attempt to smear him. Relations between the former prime minister and Sunak are chilly.

Supporters of Johnson say he wants to “keep open his options” for a possible return as Conservative party leader, although very few Tory MPs think there is any prospect of that before an election expected next year.

However, if Sunak loses the election and the Conservatives are plunged into another leadership contest, Johnson’s name is likely to emerge as a potential candidate. 

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