Boris Johnson handed over his unrestricted WhatsApp and notebook to Rishi Sunak, urging the government to give him a Covid-19 test.
With the prime minister under immense pressure ahead of a 4pm deadline on Thursday, the former Tory leader urged the Cabinet Office to “immediately disclose” the material for Baroness Hallett’s inquiry.
It comes as Mr Sunak’s government was warned it faced an embarrassing defeat if it challenged a Covid probe in court in an attempt to withhold Mr Johnson’s WhatsApp messages.
Senior Tories also urged Mr Sunak to end the row – saying it was “less painful” and hand the Johnson files over to Lady Hallett’s team.
A spokesman for Mr Johnson said “all” material requested by the Covid inquiry “has been handed over to the Cabinet Office in full and unrestricted form”.
The former PM’s spokesman said “the Cabinet Office had access to this material for a number of months”, but clarified that Mr Johnson had handed over all requested material to the government today.
With the government continuing to signal that it would oppose the demand from inquiry chair Baroness Hallett, the former PM’s team also warned that “Mr Johnson will reveal this directly to the inquiry if asked”.
The spokesman said: “While Mr Johnson understands the government’s position, and does not seek to contradict it, he is perfectly happy to have access to this material in any form.”
“Mr Johnson co-operated fully with the inquiry from the start of this process and continues to do so. Indeed, he set up the inquiry. He looks forward to continuing to assist with the important work of the investigation.”
The Cabinet Office – which told the inquiry that not all of the material demanded was there – worried about setting a precedent by handing over all the requested documents unchanged.
But Sir Jonathan Jones, the government’s former legal chief, told Independent The “cards are stacked” against the Sunak government if the increasingly “bizarre” controversy goes to court.
“It’s a mess,” said Senior Casey. “It is likely that the court will have to rule on this – it does not appear that either side intends to back down. I am aware of any instance of the government refusing to provide information to a public inquiry set up by No. This is all quite extraordinary.
He said: “The powers of the public inquiry are wide. There is logic to the Covid inquiry as it is – that it has to look at the material to decide on its relevance. The cards are stacked in the inquiry’s favour. A Bar to get a court to quash the request [from a public inquiry] is high.”
Former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption also said efforts to block the messages were likely to fail – adding that he did not think the Cabinet Office’s arguments would “cut much ice” in the courts. “I clearly can’t see the courts being canceled [Lady Hallett’s] decision,” he told the BBC world at one,
Arguing that going to court would be a “political mistake”, he said: “They are not going to be successful in judicial review, so that what they would achieve in protesting would be to show that they are hiding something”. “
Sir Jonathan said that if the Sunak government refused to hand over the Johnson material by the deadline, Baroness Hallett’s team could either go to the High Court to seek the order – or launch a criminal prosecution, arguing that Refusal to provide information violates interrogation. Act 2005.
In his recent exchange of letters with the Cabinet Office, the Speaker pointed out that failure to comply could be a criminal offense and punishable with a fine of up to £1,000 or a maximum of 51 weeks’ imprisonment.
“Perhaps [the Covid-19 inquiry] On the possibility of criminal proceedings Sir Jonathan said, “Some senior person in the Cabinet Office will try to hold responsible”, before describing the scenario as “extraordinary” and “the least likely outcome”.
The former Treasury solicitor said it was “quite likely” the government would seek a judicial review before 4pm on Thursday to “test the legality” of Baroness Hallett’s request.
Urging a reconsideration, Sir Jonathan said: “It would be quite a downgrade for the government to say it will provide information, but I think it should consider doing so to avoid extreme scenarios.”
No 10 has said there is nothing to prevent Mr Johnson handing over any personal evidence directly to the inquiry, any “government owned” material the government would be required to disclose.
If Thursday’s deadline passes without the Cabinet Office stepping down, it will be able to demand and accept material directly from Mr Johnson on whether a Covid inquiry will be held. A source said the investigation would “cross that bridge if it comes to it”.
Former Tory cabinet minister Malcolm Rifkind told Independent Mr Johnson should be allowed to hand over his WhatsApp messages directly to Lady Hallett. “If he’s up for it he should be able to do it. It’s his WhatsApp messages – not his [the Cabinet Office],
Mr Rifkind also said a compromise could still be made – suggesting that the government and Lady Hallett agree on an “independent” broker to look at the messages and decide what should be edited.
Senior Tory MP Caroline Nokes said the “reluctance” by the government to provide WhatsApp and the notebook “seems to be a sham”. She told Talk TV it would be “less pain for the government” if they joined hands [the material] over quickly”.
The chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, senior Tory William Wragg, also urged the government to back down. He told the BBC: “If the investigation asks for documents and information – whoever asked for it should comply.”
Historian Sir Anthony Selden, who has recorded Mr Johnson’s time at No. 10, said it was a “simple no-brainer” for the messages to be handed down. He told Talk TV, “This event was so seismic and Boris Johnson’s premiership so devastating, we have to get the full facts.”
With the deadline looming and Mr Sunak facing allegations of a “cover up”, Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride insisted the government had “nothing to hide”. Mr Stride told Sky News that the inquiry already has “all the information that is right for it”.
Meanwhile, an aide of Johnson told Independent Former PM should sue Cabinet Office for recent referral to police over possible new Covid rule breaches at Checkers No 10.
“If I were Boris I would take legal action and remove any cover-up,” he said. “I think the conspirators have their hand in trying to destroy Boris and their actions are starting to come to the fore.”
Independent The Cabinet Office has been contacted for comment.