Cabinet Office launches legal action over Boris Johnson WhatsApps

"Important issues of principal at stake," department says

By Zoe Crowther

02 Jun 2023

The Cabinet Office is seeking a judicial review over whether the Covid Inquiry has the power to request Boris Johnson's personal WhatsApp messages and diaries from his time in Downing Street during the pandemic, which the government has argued are "unambiguously irrelevant".

The government and the public inquiry have been at odds over whether private documents and messages, including from former prime minister Boris Johnson, should be shared with the inquiry as part of its investigation into the government's response to the pandemic.

Johnson has now said he will share the materials – which do not include any messages before April 2021 – directly with the inquiry "in unredacted form". In a letter to inquiry chair Heather Hallett, he said he was “not willing to let my material become a test case for others when I am perfectly content for the inquiry to see it”.

Tt is not yet clear whether Johnson's actions will affect the legal proceedings.

Having been given until 4pm yesterday to disclose it, the Cabinet Office decided to continue to block the release of the material to the inquiry and instead  launch legal action challenging the inquiry's demand. 

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "The Cabinet Office has today sought leave to bring a judicial review.

"We do so with regret and with an assurance that we will continue to cooperate fully with the inquiry before, during and after the jurisdictional issue in question is determined by the courts, specifically whether the Inquiry has the power to compel production of documents and messages which are unambiguously irrelevant to the Inquiry’s work, including personal communications and matters unconnected to the government’s handling of Covid."

The spokesperson said the Cabinet Office considered there to be "important issues of principal at stake", arguing that individuals' private material should not be subject to "unwarranted intrusion".

The government said it had "exchanged views with the inquiry and explored a number of possible avenues for resolving this difference of opinion" before initiating legal action.

Boris Johnson handed over the documents to the Cabinet Office this week, and he has urged the government to give the material to the Covid Inquiry.

In a letter published this morning, the former PM said he would hand the materials directly 

Responding to the government's announcement, Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader Daisy Cooper MP said: “This cowardly attempt to obstruct a vital public inquiry is a kick in the teeth for bereaved families who’ve already waited far too long for answers.

“Rishi Sunak's promise to govern with integrity and accountability has been left in tatters. The government is delaying the inquiry even further and clogging up court time, all to prevent Sunak and his Conservative colleagues from having to release their messages.”

The Covid Inquiry said further information would be provided on the judicial review at the preliminary hearing at 10:30am on Tuesday 6 June.

Zoe Crowther is a journalist for CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared

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