Court battle over Boris Johnson's WhatsApps to be heard 'very shortly'

The government is set to enter a legal battle to keep Boris Johnson's WhatsApps private. Credit: PA

A legal battle between the government and the Covid-19 inquiry will take place "very soon", the House of Commons has been told.

Paymaster General Jeremy Quinn, explaining why the Cabinet Office was seeking judicial review over a request by the inquiry to see all of Boris Johnson's unredacted WhatsApp messages, said the high court challenge was expected "on or shortly after June 30".

The Covid inquiry wanted to see all the former prime minister's messages, along with notebooks and diaries, but the government rejected that demand and instead applied for a judicial review to keep them private.

Mr Quinn said the challenge is a “matter of legal principle that will have an impact on this and all future governments” and not related to “one individual’s personal information”.

He told MPs: “There is no question that all internal discussions on Covid in any form requested by the inquiry will be made transparently available to it.

“What has been redacted and so not provided in response to the notice is material which the Cabinet Office considers to be clearly and unambiguously irrelevant to that work.

“That material includes, for example, communications about purely personal matters and about other aspects of the government’s policy and work, which have nothing to do with Covid.”

It comes after Mr Johnson made the decision to bypass the government and hand over material to the inquiry himself.

In response, the government threatened to withdraw the legal funding it is providing the former prime minister for his contributions to the Covid-19 inquiry.

Number 10 is said to be nervous about Mr Johnson's WhatsApp messages being released in their entirety because they contain conversations it says are "irrelevant" to the inquiry.

The documents requested by the Covid inquiry include conversations between Mr Johnson, Rishi Sunak and other senior figures still in government.

Conservative chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) William Wragg questioned why the government would be worried about personal information being made public.

“There’s no prospect, and it is rather spurious nonsense to hear some ministers witter on about personal information about their children being disclosed.

"That is not the case and nor is it my understanding that any of this material would be subject to freedom of information request."

Mr Quin replied: “If there is WhatsApp information presented, that will cover all manner of things between individuals which may well include issues on illness or family or other personal issues, that is simply a statement of fact and I think it is absolutely vital that we have this technical point.”

The Cabinet Office, the government department supporting former ministers and their replacements through the inquiry, reportedly told Mr Johnson that funding for his legal fees would “cease to be available” if he breaks certain conditions.

According to the Sunday Times, a letter sent to the ex-PM said: “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."

They added that funding would “only remain available” if he complied with conditions such as 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”.

The Cabinet Office said the letter was “intended to protect public funds” so taxpayer-funded lawyers are not used for any other purpose than aiding the inquiry.

Mr Johnson sent his documents to the inquiry himself after the government rejected a demand for them and decided to seek judicial review in order to keep them private.

The government insisted it was necessary to keep some of the documents private because there were “important issues of principle at stake” affecting the rights of individuals and “the proper conduct of government”.

But Mr Johnson 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”.

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