It’s more bad news for the government today. The High Court has this afternoon ordered ministers to release Boris Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages and notebooks to the Covid inquiry. Judges said there were no grounds to block inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett’s order to hand over the material. It will mean inquiry officials will have access to message exchanges between Johnson and former and current ministers and officials, including Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss.
The Cabinet Office can apply to not provide documents if either they don’t have them, or if they think it would be ‘unreasonable’ to hand them over. But Baroness Hallett will rule on any application and there is no right of appeal. A spokesman for the government has now confirmed that: ‘We will comply fully with this judgment and will now work with the inquiry team on the practical arrangements.’ Johnson has previously attacked Sunak’s government for trying to stop the inquiry being shown his unredacted WhatsApp messages.
In truth today’s judgement does not come as a surprise. Ministers have privately been expecting to lose for weeks, with George Freeman saying as much publicly on Question Time. The 2005 Inquiries Act and the wide-ranging terms of reference that Johnson’s government set for the inquiry meant Hallett could scrutinise virtually any documents she wanted; any moves to stop that were always likely to fail. The decision does however make clear that the government’s concerns were valid with regards to irrelevant personal information being shared.
Attention will now turn to the content of Boris Johnson’s unredacted messages and the advice he received throughout 2020 and 2021. The leaked Telegraph lockdown messages showed that it can sometimes be officials who emerge the worst from these kind of revelations, as shown by the crass WhatsApps sent by Cabinet Secretary Simon Case. Questions might also be asked as to why this review was launched, given the high probability of a defeat.