Covid inquiry threatens legal action over redacted Boris Johnson WhatsApps

ITV News political correspondent Carl Dinnen has the latest from Westminster

The UK Covid-19 inquiry has threatened the Cabinet Office with legal action over its refusal to share all evidence from Boris Johnson's WhatsApp messages and diaries without redactions.

The Cabinet Office, which has been supporting the former prime minister in giving evidence to the Covid inquiry, has been refusing to share documents in their entirety without redactions removing parts of messages that it claimed are “unambiguously irrelevant” to the inquiry.

Inquiry chair Baroness Heather Hallett insisted it was important for her to see all the evidence in an unredacted form and gave a deadline of 4pm on May 30 for it to be provided.

The Cabinet Office, which had appealed to the Covid inquiry to keep the evidence redacted, said it would "continue to provide all relevant material to the Inquiry, in line with the law, ahead of proceedings getting underway".

It has also been revealed that Mr Johnson is seeking to replace his government-appointed legal team for his representations to the inquiry.

The ex-PM wrote to the inquiry himself, asking it to delay publication of the ruling "for at least 48 hours" because he is "currently instructing new solicitors to represent" him and needs more time to find new counsel.

What did Boris Johnson really know about Downing Street’s notorious parties? With fresh revelations from our sources, in their own words, listen to the definitive behind-closed-doors story of one of the biggest scandals of our era...

"That process is well underway but is in the hands of the Cabinet Office to agree funding and other practical arrangements," he added.

"I have no control over the timing of that process. As at today, I am unrepresented and my counsel team have been instructed not to provide me with any advice."

His letter to the inquiry was published, as he requested, to "make clear my concerns about the unfairness of the position in which I have been placed".

Mr Johnson was referred to police over potential coronavirus breaches once again only yesterday, after the Cabinet Office found diary entries which suggested he may have broken rules when hosting gatherings at Chequers, the prime ministerial country retreat.

Thames Valley Police confirmed it received a report of "potential breaches of the Health Protection Regulations between June 2020 and May 2021" and was "currently assessing this information".

The Metropolitan Police, which also received the allegations, released a similar statement.

Responding, a spokesperson for Mr Johnson said: "Some abbreviated entries in Mr Johnson's official diary were queried by Cabinet Office during preparation for the Covid Inquiry.

"Following an examination of the entries, Mr Johnson's lawyers wrote to the Cabinet Office and Privileges Committee explaining that the events were lawful and were not breaches of any Covid Regulations."

He was investigated by the police while prime minister over lockdown breaches and was ordered to pay a £50 fine, as was Rishi Sunak who was chancellor at the time.

But Mr Sunak “definitely” did not go to Chequers in contravention of lockdown rules, Downing Street has said.

Explaining how police were given the information, the Cabinet Office said it had "not made any assessment or conducted any investigation of the material".

"Ministers played no role in deciding whether the information should be handed over to the police.

"The police were first contacted on 16th May prior to any minister being made aware. The decision to contact the police and the subsequent decision to share the information was not made by Ministers but by officials acting in line with the Civil Service Code."

Mr Sunak found out about the matter “after all the information had been passed to the police” and “was informed before it was put in the public domain”, his spokesperson said.

In contrast to Mr Johnson's redactions, another key player in the Covid inquiry, former health secretary Matt Hancock, said via a spokesperson that he'd "made all his records and materials available to the inquiry without making any redactions for relevance".

"Matt feels very strongly that full transparency is vital so all lessons can be learned," the spokesperson said.

Is more trouble awaiting Boris Johnson?

Downing Street declined to say whether the former PM would lose the whip if police were to charge him with further lockdown breaches.

Mr Sunak's press secretary said “that’s a hypothetical question” and said she would not comment while police are looking into the matter.

Asked whether Mr Sunak has spoken to his predecessor about the controversy, she said: “I don’t believe that they have had a discussion about this.”

But more trouble could be awaiting the former prime minister over the varous lockdown breaches which took place in Downing Street under his leadership.

His political troubles over 'Partygate', as the scandal became known, did not end with his premiership, and the inquiry by Parliament's Privileges Committee could cause him further pain.

The committee is investigating whether Mr Johnson committed contempt of Parliament by misleading MPs with claims in the Commons that coronavirus rules were always followed in Downing Street.

Mr Johnson insists he was always honest to the best of his knowledge when giving assurances to MPs, but if the committee decides otherwise he could receive a punishment that sees him lose his seat.

If the committee recommends a punishment of 10 days suspended from Parliament, and MPs approve it, a by-election could follow.

If he is suspended for 10 days, voters in his constituency will be asked if they want to remove him as their MP by signing a recall petition.

If 10% of eligible voters in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency sign the petition, that will trigger a by-election.

Mr Johnson has a majority of 7,210 in his constituency, winning 52.6% of the vote in 2019, but Labour gained 37.6% and will be hoping it could oust the former prime minister.