Covid inquiry: what good is Boris Johnson’s offer to bypass the Cabinet Office, really?

Boris Johnson: he probably thinks this is all very funny.

The latest development in the Covid inquiry saga is that Boris Johnson has offered to bypass the Cabinet Office, which has refused to give up his diaries, notebooks and WhatsApps for use as evidence.

There are just two problems:

Firstly, he seems not to have the notebooks, having handed them over to the Cabinet Office last week in the expectation that its people would pass them on to the inquiry.

He has reportedly told the inquiry, “I have asked that the Cabinet Office pass these to you. If the government chooses not to do so, I will ask for these to be returned to my office so that I can provide them to you directly.”

But why would the Cabinet Office return these notebooks to him, knowing that if it does so, he’ll hand them to the inquiry – which is what the government is demanding a judicial review to avoid?

Secondly, he hasn’t handed over WhatsApps from before April 2021 – so most of the messages covering the period requested (January 1, 2020 to February 24, 2022) are missing.

And that’s really odd, because – as I’ve mentioned already – he could grab backup copies of this missing stuff from Google Drive or iCloud (depending on the make of his phone).

The claim is that the messages were compromised because it turned out his phone number had been in the public domain for 15 years and malcontents like foreign governments could have tapped into it, so he had been advised to turn it off and keep it that way.

Why? If foreign powers have had access to Johnson’s messages for up to 15 years before he did switch it off, then shouldn’t the UK authorities know what they’ve been reading?

According to the BBC article (link above),

cyber-security expert Prof Alan Woodward said the risk of turning on Mr Johnson’s old phone was “minimal”, adding: “It is perfectly possible to do that without exposing it to the potential threat.”

So Johnson has said he’s “perfectly content” to release information he’s already given the Cabinet Office to the Covid inquiry – but in fact he’s not in a position to hand over very much that’s of any use.

What good is that?

In fact, there is method in it – from Johnson’s point of view. You see, as former government lawyer David Allen Green points out, it is possible that Johnson’s new lawyers have advised him that there is no solid legal basis on which he can resist disclosing his documents to the inquiry.

So, by saying he wants to hand over these items, even though he doesn’t have them, Johnson has done two things:

He has made it clear that, whether or not the Cabinet Office had copies of his WhatsApps, diaries and notebooks before last week, it has them now – and had them in time to honour the Covid inquiry’s demand for them to be handed over.

This means gives the Covid inquiry an opportunity to show the Cabinet Office is in breach of the law.

And he has made it clear that he has waived his right to privacy – he is happy for the documents to be made public. That undermines the Cabinet Office’s claim that handing over the documents would breach the privacy of the people mentioned in them – partially. Others may still object, but it will be hard to maintain a privacy claim in court after what Johnson has done.

So, without actually helping the inquiry, Johnson has dumped the Cabinet Office deep in the metaphorical mire. I wonder if he feels pleased with himself.

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1 thought on “Covid inquiry: what good is Boris Johnson’s offer to bypass the Cabinet Office, really?

  1. Roger C Haslock

    Surely GCHQ has copies – end-to-end encryption not withstanding. ( Oh. That’s under Home Secretary control [ S. Braverman ], isn’t it? )

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