Why ex-PM’s Whatsapp messages are about to be a problem for his AND Rishi

Boris Johnson denies rule breaking at Chequers

Despite suggesting he has handed over all his Whatsapp messages for the Covid inquiry chaired by Baroness Hallett, it emerged today that Boris Johnson had not – but has, rather, given most of them.

But it is not Mr Johnson who the government plans to take to court, rather the inquiry itself for having the temerity to ask for evidence.

This is perhaps a surprise to some.

After all, one thing which has been clear over the 12 months is the government machine has gone out of its way to humiliate and denegrate Boris Johnson – even when he was in charge as Prime Minister.

It was insiders in the government who leaked the Partygate pictures; it was insiders in the Foreign Office back in Theresa May’s tenure as Prime Minister who leaked about Mr Johnson as Foreign Secretary; just recently it was civil servants who reported him to the police again for Covid Partygate breaches.

The Whitehall blob and the Rishi Sunak government has not exactly ever sought to protect Mr Johnson and apparently done all it can to damage him.

So why the sudden change of heart?

The answer is simple – this is nothing to do with Boris Johnson and everything to do with setting a new principle of transparency, or at least preventing it.

For some years now Whatsapp messaging has become the preferred option of MPs and ministers, especially in the Conservative Party, to discuss issues and keep things secret.

We know this because every so often a member of a Whatsapp group of Tory MPs will screenshot a string of messages and helpfully leak them to the press to publish.

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Whatsapp is preferred because it is encrypted and much safer from hacking, messages can be deleted and, until now, it has been apparently outside the remit of inquiries and Freedom of Information requests.

That, though, can change if the inquiry establishes there is a legal duty to hand them over.

There will be a concern among ministers – not just Mr Johnson – that flippant remarks and jokes or confused statements made with harmless intent could be blown out of proportion.

The inquiry apparently wants to check whether Mr Johnson was breaking the rules in Chequers (the Prime Minister’s country residence) or whether he took the pandemic seriously enough in the run-up to lockdown.

Fears are growing it could get distracted on tittle tattle as could those sifting through the messages.

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Anyone who wants to know about how the narrative can be changed by some clumsily worded Whatsapp messages only needs to look at the cautionary tale of Matt Hancock.

He inexplicably handed over his messages to journalist Isabel Oakeshott who published them and destroyed his reputation probably permanently.

But there is a serious issue here beyond a politician becoming a parody figure.

The Whatsapp messages are meant as a way to converse freely about problems within government as well as personal issues.

It gives people space to make mistakes and suggestions privately as well to give (and receive) advice.

This is why it has become a point of principle for the Cabinet Office, particularly as the inquiry appears to be demanding messages which might concern national security and material that is frankly, irrelevant.

If there’s a presumption such messages should always be made available it will have a detrimental impact on the working of government and will stifle it.

People will be afraid to say or suggest anything that may at some later point land them in trouble.

While we all want to get to the bottom of what happened with Covid and what lessons are to be learnt, it might be unwise to bring the working of government to a grinding halt by pursuing every jot and tittle of conversation from that time.

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