Cabinet Office takes Covid Inquiry to court over demand for Boris’s WhatsApps

Boris Johnson denies rule breaking at Chequers

The Government is set to fight a legal battle over the Covid Inquiry’s demand to release Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages.

The Cabinet Office said it was seeking a judicial review of inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett’s order to release the unredacted WhatsApp messages, diaries and personal notebooks.

In a letter to the inquiry, released after a 4pm deadline to hand over the material, it argued that it should not have to hand over material which is “unambiguously irrelevant”.

The Cabinet Office said it had provided “as much relevant information as possible, and as quickly as possible” in line with the order.

The letter said: “The Cabinet Office has today sought leave to bring a judicial review.

“We do so with regret and with an assurance that we will continue to co-operate fully with the inquiry before, during and after the jurisdictional issue in question is determined by the courts, specifically whether the inquiry has the power to compel production of documents and messages which are unambiguously irrelevant to the inquiry’s work, including personal communications and matters unconnected to the Government’s handling of Covid.”

The Government said it considered there were “important issues of principle at stake” affecting the rights of individuals and “the proper conduct of government”.

The letter said: “The request for unambiguously irrelevant material goes beyond the powers of the inquiry.

“Individuals, junior officials, current and former ministers and departments should not be required to provide material that is irrelevant to the inquiry’s work.

“It represents an unwarranted intrusion into other aspects of the work of government.

“It also represents an intrusion into their legitimate expectations of privacy and protection of their personal information.”

The Cabinet Office had previously argued that it did not have Mr Johnson’s documents – apart from his ministerial diaries – in its possession.

However the former prime minister publicly said he had handed the material over.

But in a further twist tonight, a senior civil servant said Mr Johnson’s lawyers have not provided a “substantive response” to a request from the Cabinet Office for his old mobile phone.

In her statement, Ellie Nicholson said the Cabinet Office had received Mr Johnson’s WhatsApp messages on Wednesday afternoon and was reviewing the material “for national security sensitivities and unambiguously irrelevant material, and appropriate redactions are being applied”.

However the material does not include messages from before May 2021.

Ms Nicholson’s statement said: “I understand that this is because, in April 2021, in light of a well-publicised security breach, Mr Johnson implemented security advice relating to the mobile phone he had had up until that time.”

Mr Johnson was forced to change his mobile in 2021 after it emerged his number had been publicly available online for 15 years.

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