Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would present the investigation into Covid-19 on Friday, unedited WhatsApp messages he shared with the Cabinet Office.
He added in a letter to the head of the investigation, Baroness Heather Hallett, that he would like to hand over other relevant material, including correspondence from his old mobile phone, if he could access it.
The decision to bypass the Cabinet Office would be a blow to Rishi Sunak’s government, which said on Thursday it would take legal action, on privacy grounds, against the investigation to stop the unredacted release of what it considers to be “unequivocally irrelevant” material.
The material in question relates to WhatsApp messages sent by Johnson when he was Prime Minister during the Covid pandemic; Hallett argued that she must decide whether or not the material is relevant.
On Thursday it emerged that Johnson had only delivered his WhatsApp messages for the period after May 2021, the point at which the former prime minister announced the Covid investigation. The Cabinet Office said Johnson had been given a new phone after discovering a major security breach on his old device in April 2021.
However, in his letter to Hallett on Friday, Johnson said he would share “all unredacted WhatsApps” submitted to the Cabinet Office “today in unredacted form”. He added that he would also like to “do the same” with “related material” from his old device, which “I was previously told I could no longer safely access”.
Earlier this week, Johnson’s allies said the former prime minister still kept his old phone, but had been told not to turn it on by the security services. Officials said they were happy to pull any messages from the device if it could be done “without compromising security”.
“I have asked the Cabinet Office to help run it securely so that I can search it for all relevant material,” Johnson said in his letter.
The former prime minister said he understood the government’s decision to take legal action against the investigation, but said he was “unwilling” to allow his material to “become a test case for others”.
While he no longer has physical access to his notebooks as they have been removed by the Cabinet Office, Johnson said he has asked the administration to pass them on as well to the investigation. He added, “If the government chooses not to do so, I will request that they be returned to my office so that I can provide them directly to you.”
The then prime minister was forced to hand over his old phone in April 2021 after it emerged that his number had been available online for 15 years – attached to an old press release from a think-tank.
Sunak’s reluctance to deliver all the material requested by Hallett dominated a quiet news week in Westminster, allowing opposition parties to suggest the prime minister had something to hide.
While working as a consultant during the pandemic, Sunak has been skeptical about lockdowns, warning of the economic damage they could cause. He also defended the controversial Eat Out to Help Out scheme.
Labor alleges that Snack is trying to stop the release of Johnson’s WhatsApp messages because the prime minister fears the investigation will require him – at a later stage – to hand over his private messages, along with those of other current ministers.
Meanwhile, a government minister admitted that Sinak’s legal action was likely to fail.
George Freeman, the science minister, told the BBC that “the courts will probably take the view” that Hallett is “fully empowered and empowered to decide what she wants”.
Freeman, speaking on the BBC question time And Thursday evening, he disagreed with suggestions that the legal move was a “cynical waste of time,” adding that it would make clear the need to protect the privacy of ministers and officials.
But he added: “I have very little doubt that the courts will find that Baroness Hallett will decide what evidence she deems relevant, and then we will deal with it.”
Former Downing Street chief of staff Lord Gavin Barwell argued on Friday that the government was “making a huge mistake” over the matter, telling the BBC: “It is important that we get to the bottom of the truth”.
As another reminder of the controversy that still haunts Johnson, the former prime minister was referred to the police by the Cabinet Office last month over possible further breaches of coronavirus restrictions during his time in No. 10.
Johnson vehemently denies breaking any rules and his allies have indicated there was an attempt to discredit him. Relations between the former prime minister and Sunak are frosty.
Johnson’s supporters say he wants to “keep his options open” for a possible return as Tory leader, although very few Tory MPs think there is any prospect of that ahead of an election expected next year.
However, if Sunak loses the election and the Conservatives plunge into another leadership contest, Johnson’s name is likely to emerge as a potential candidate.