Rishi Sunak’s government was caught in an extraordinary row over Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages after the official Covid investigation threatened legal action over its refusal to share details.
The Cabinet Office has so far refused to hand over unredacted copies of the former prime minister’s diary entries, WhatsApp messages and emails, prompting the head of a public inquiry to warn of possible criminal sanctions.
The dramatic development came as Mr Johnson sacked his government-appointed legal team after they were referred to the police over possible further rule breaches and Suella Braverman escaped any scrutiny over her speeding fines row.
Frustrated Conservative MPs told Independent Mr Sunak has had to rise above “damaging” scandals that threaten to derail his efforts to regain credibility and win the next general election.
The fresh division comes as follows:
- Mr Sunak decided an inquiry into Ms Braverman’s handling of his speeding offense was “not necessary”
- Mr Johnson said he has no legal representation as he seeks to appoint a new Partygate defense team
- Baroness Hallett rejected the Cabinet Office’s arguments that Mr Johnson’s messages were “personal”
Senior Tories are “riled up” over the latest disturbing controversy – describing the former PM as “a bad smell that doesn’t go away”.
Tory moderates are keen for Mr Sunak to stop the party being “dragged back” by Mr Johnson and Ms Braverman, who have avoided a formal inquiry despite a dispute over their request for a private speed awareness course.
But allies of Mr Johnson and Ms Braverman want the PM to crack down on the civil service – claiming the “blob” of senior Whitehall officials is leading a “stitch-up” of leading Tory right-wingers.
A former Tory minister said it was “disappointing” that Mr Johnson’s problems were again dragging the party ahead of the Covid inquiry. “This is clearly a problem and a distraction – so the PM has to recuse himself. Dragging back won’t help.
Another senior Conservative said the party’s tearoom was “bubbling over with the recklessness of senior Tories who make other MPs feel they could lose their seats”.
Mr Sunak is keen to avoid any interference with the Covid investigation, but Baroness Hallett rejected arguments made by the Cabinet Office against the release of “personal” exchanges – exposing officers to potential criminal sanctions in the event of legal action Warned.
Number 10 denied that the corrections made were politically motivated – saying that lawyers had ensured that the “personal” messages were of “no relevance” to the investigation.
Mr Johnson is also furious with the Cabinet Office and is said to be considering suing the department for passing extracts of his diary to the police over possible rule breaches at Chequers.
A senior Tory figure said the line “here we go again” over Mr Johnson’s time at Checkers and his WhatsApp messages, adding: “He’s like a bad smell that doesn’t go away.”
Sanak’s aide, prominent MP also told Independent The prime minister’s decision on Wednesday not to sack or even investigate Ms Braverman over the speeding controversy “damages leadership when it doesn’t need to be damaged”.
He said: “The only reason he is there appears to be some deal struck in the autumn to prevent Boris from coming back. But it is clear he is not up to the job and his attitude, tone and Lack of administrative capacity is detrimental to the government.
Number 10 denied Mr Johnson’s claims to his office that he is the victim of a “politically motivated stitch-up”. Mr Sunak’s spokesman insisted no minister was involved in the move by cabinet officials to pass evidence to Mr Johnson about possible Covid rule breaches involving the police and the privileges committee, which will decide whether he should be given a government job at Partygate. Whether to face sanctions or not.
However, allies of Mr Johnson and Ms Braverman remain suspicious. A group of right-wingers reportedly met on Wednesday to “consider options” if Mr Sunak pushes to stop the “witch-hunt” by civil servants.
Right-wing Tory MP Craig McKinley told Independent The stories about both Ms Braverman and Mr Johnson were “rather pathetic” and “smelled of contradiction” from disgruntled Whitehall officials.
Mr McKinley said: “It’s all getting a bit weird. It seems you can’t even ask an officer for a cup of coffee without a problem.
Another senior Tory backbencher said: “There are some civil servants in the Home Office who simply do not want Ms Braverman to work on small boats and migration”, adding that there is “an element of left-wing bias” in the civil service.
A Tory MP suspected of leaking so many stories said: “It happens [about] Ministers who are trying to change things or those on the right of the Conservative Party.
The latest scandal comes as Mr Sunak faces another looming Tory row over annual net migration figures released on Thursday, which are expected to show a record high of at least 700,000.
Although the government has tried to stop overseas students from bringing their dependents with them to the UK, the huge numbers are sure to spark a fresh debate on immigration policy. Former Tory leader Ian Duncan Smith told Independent that the government had to address the country’s “addiction to cheap labour”.