It always happens with Boris Johnson. What for the current UK government has become a legal challenge of the first order, for the former prime minister is an opportunity to settle accounts with his enemies. And, as on other occasions, cheating. The Executive of Rishi Sunak has decided to refuse to deliver to the independent commission investigating the public management of the pandemic, chaired by former magistrate Heather Hallett, the WhatsApp messages that Johnson exchanged with scientific advisers and other members of his Cabinet. The deadline ended this Thursday at four in the afternoon (five in the afternoon, Spanish penisular time). Twenty minutes later, Downing Street issued a statement explaining the reasons for its refusal to hand over the WhatsApps. "The Cabinet Office [charged with coordinating the work of the prime minister and other ministries] has requested permission to conduct a judicial review of [the commission's] order. We regret to take this action, and we assure again that we will continue to cooperate fully with the commission, both in the time in which the courts decide the jurisdictional issue we raise and afterwards, "said the text.
It is the first time that a British government has challenged the task of an independent commission of inquiry in court. Sunak's team is convinced that it has substantive arguments to resist the delivery of WhatsApps. They believe that it would set a serious precedent for the work of future governments. At the time, they already responded to Judge Hallett that many of the messages would contain "information without any doubt irrelevant", in some cases related to personal matters of the ministers. Downing Street has offered to let its own lawyers decide what material to deliver and what not. "[The petition] is an intrusion without legal basis into aspects of the Government's work unrelated to the pandemic. And an intrusion into legitimate expectations of privacy and protection of personal information," the Cabinet Office argued.
The judge believes that it should be the commission that determines the relevance of the texts, and a large majority of legal experts support her argument and predict the failure of the Government in the courts. "If he concludes that some of that material should be made public because it concerns the general interest, I very much doubt that the courts will overturn his decision," former Supreme Court Justice Jonathan Sumption told the BBC.
The former prime minister, through his spokesmen, has made public his request to the Government of Sunak to deliver all the messages requested by the judge, and has sent them to Downing Street. This same Thursday, Johnson wrote to the magistrate and was "delighted to deliver both the WhatsApps and the newspapers that had been requested", against the legal criteria of Downing Street.
Soon after, however, it was known that the messages delivered by Johnson only covered the period from May 2021 (a year after the pandemic began, and when it was already clear that an independent commission would investigate the government's management). All the previous texts were on a mobile device that the former prime minister had to do without, for security reasons, after it came to light that his mobile number had been circulating on the internet for fifteen years. Since then, he stopped using that device. Now, he has asked the government's computer technicians to try to rescue its contents, but, for now, with his maneuver, he has managed to put Sunak against the sword and the wall.
During the pandemic, the current prime minister was Johnson's Chancellor of the Exchequer, and he had a very belligerent position against lockdowns, because of the damage they caused to the country's activity. Johnson does not forgive Sunak who, with his resignation, helped precipitate the political fall of what until then had been the most popular politician in the recent history of the United Kingdom. With his move, Johnson muddies the ground and puts his successor in a compromise.
"After thirteen years of scandals of the Tories, this last smokescreen is only a tactic to undermine the task of the commission of inquiry," denounced the number two of the Labour opposition, Angela Rayner. "Citizens deserve answers, not another attempt to cover up the truth."
The organization Justice for the Families of Victims of Covid-19 has described the government's maneuver as "absolutely obscene". "Why is he hampering the entire Cabinet Office? There is no choice but to presume that they are trying to hide evidence that would be devastating to Rishi Sunak's reputation, and that this is more important to them than saving lives in the future," said the organization's spokeswoman, Rivka Gottlieb.
Sunak, who participates in the Moldovan capital at the summit of the European Political Community – which has concentrated fifty leaders there – has assured that his Government "had confidence in being able to defend its position". "It is really important that we learn the lessons of the pandemic to be more prepared in the future, and we will do so in a rigorous way, but also with transparency and honesty," the British prime minister promised.
Follow all the international information on Facebook and Twitter, or in our weekly newsletter.
Subscribe to continue reading
Read without limits
I'm already a subscriber