Before we start, it should be made clear that Boris Johnson has given no reason for sacking Lord Bethell as a health minister in his Cabinet reshuffle.
That being said, Bethell is a key figure in a major – ongoing – scandal in which government decisions may have been made using personal email and/or WhatsApp accounts in order to avoid public scrutiny.
Bethell had claimed that he never used his private email or telephone accounts for official business – but then replaced his mobile phone before it could be searched for information relevant to £85m of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) deals that are subject to a legal challenge.
The government is expected to disclose Bethell’s correspondence on those matters – by email, WhatsApp and SMS – as part of legal proceedings issued by the Good Law Project.
The Health Secretary has a responsibility to preserve and search documents for information relevant to the case from the point at which judicial review proceedings were issued in late 2020, under the government’s “duty of candour” – and the phone was replaced in early 2021.
The government has admitted it made no effort to issue Bethell with a preservation notice requiring him to save documents, claiming that ministers’ official correspondence was routinely saved as a matter of course. However, this did not cover government business conducted by private means.
It seems Bethell has not reactivated his WhatsApp, SMS and private email accounts from that phone, although there is nothing to stop him from doing so. Efforts are being made to recover information in those accounts from his mobile phone provider.
I wonder if those efforts have borne fruit and Bethell’s departure from government is happening ahead of more serious proceedings in the courts.
Whatever happens there, this development indicates that Boris Johnson’s government is not as immune to public scrutiny as he has previously tried to suggest.
The prime minister has often shrugged off criticism after serious complaints were made about his own misbehaviour and that of his ministers, but at least three of the worst offenders – Gavin Williamson, Robert Jenrick and now Bethell – have been ejected in the reshuffle.
Is Johnson going for plausible deniability – putting distance between himself and Bethell so he won’t be caught in the backlash if serious wrongdoing is exposed?