The former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has provided the government with all the WhatsApp messages and notebooks requested by the Covid-19 inquiry. Johnson is encouraging the government to submit the materials to the inquiry without any redactions. The inquiry, set to begin public hearings in two weeks, will investigate the government’s handling of the pandemic. However, the government has refused to submit materials it deems irrelevant.
The Covid inquiry has given the Cabinet Office a deadline to disclose all requested information. The Cabinet Office contends that ministers should have the right to discuss policies privately and has appointed a leading lawyer to determine what is relevant. Inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett, a crossbench peer, argues that it is her role, not the government’s, to decide on relevance. This disagreement could result in a legal battle between the Cabinet Office and the inquiry, with courts determining the availability of materials.
Some senior Conservative MPs have called for the government to back down to avoid a protracted legal confrontation. William Wragg, the chairman of a parliamentary committee on constitutional affairs, stated, “If the inquiry requests documents and info – then whoever it has asked should comply.”
A spokesperson for Johnson has said that the former Prime Minister would submit the materials directly to the Covid inquiry if requested. Cabinet Office sources have emphasized that individuals are free to share any information with the inquiry team, with the exception of documents such as government diaries, which they argue should be reviewed for national security reasons.
The spokesperson also claimed that the Cabinet Office has had access to all unredacted documents for “months” and that Johnson provided additional materials on Wednesday. The Cabinet Office confirmed receipt of the materials from Johnson and stated that “officials are looking at it.”
The materials include 24 notebooks with contemporaneous notes, diaries, and WhatsApp messages between Johnson and cabinet ministers, advisers, and senior civil servants. The inquiry announced on Tuesday that it had been informed that the Cabinet Office did not have access to all requested information.
Cabinet Office sources claim that the reason for this, contrary to Johnson’s assertions, is because the former Prime Minister had previously been working with government-employed lawyers who were reviewing his notebooks, diaries, and WhatsApp messages. When Johnson severed ties with those lawyers, the Cabinet Office lost access to the documents. It has been reported that the Cabinet Office legal team visited Johnson’s office to inspect the notebooks.
The Liberal Democrats have urged Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to provide the materials requested by the inquiry and to stop using Johnson “as an excuse to avoid handing over vital evidence.” Tensions have arisen between Sunak’s government and Johnson due to the Cabinet Office’s decision to refer Johnson to the police for potential Covid rule breaches during the pandemic. The Cabinet Office stated that the referral was made following a review of Johnson’s official diary by government lawyers as part of the Covid inquiry. Johnson has dismissed the allegations of breaches as a “politically motivated stitch-up.”
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