Boris Johnson has been warned by Whitehall that he could lose publicly funded legal support if he undermines the government’s position on the Covid-19 inquiry.
The Cabinet Office has written to Johnson to say it could withdraw the legal advice it provides to the former prime minister if he undermines the government’s handling of the inquiry.
“The funding offer will cease to be available to you if you knowingly seek to frustrate or undermine, either through your own actions or the actions of others, the government’s position in relation to the inquiry unless there is a clear and irreconcilable conflict of interest on a particular point at issue,” the letter said.
The former UK prime minister last week bypassed the Cabinet Office by handing over directly to the inquiry unredacted WhatsApp messages dating from May 2021, even though the government has launched a legal challenge over the process.
The Cabinet Office said some of the material demanded by the inquiry, headed by Lady Heather Hallett, was “unambiguously irrelevant” and is seeking to challenge the demands via a judicial review.
But Johnson said he was “unwilling” to let his material become “a test case for others” and gave the material directly to the inquiry.
His allies believe the government is bringing the legal action because serving ministers — including Rishi Sunak, prime minister — might also be asked to hand over their unredacted messages at a future date.
The Cabinet Office letter, extracts of which were published in the Sunday Times, said the legal support funding would “only remain available” if Johnson complied with certain conditions, including sending the Cabinet Office “any witness statement or exhibit which you intend to provide to the inquiry so that it can be security checked by appropriate officials”.
Johnson has so far not provided WhatsApp messages that predate May 2021 because he acquired a new phone in April 2021 after a security breach. He has offered to hand over material on that device if security experts deem it safe to do so.
In a statement, the Cabinet Office said its letter was not an attempt to prevent Johnson from fully assisting the inquiry.
The Cabinet Office said: “This letter from officials simply reiterates that taxpayer-funded lawyers must be used to aid the Covid inquiry and for no other purpose.
“The letter makes clear Mr Johnson has a duty to provide sincere witness to the inquiry independently and without reference to the views of the current government.
“This letter was intended to protect public funds. It in no way prevents Mr Johnson from providing whatever evidence he wants to.”