What’s Up With WhatsApp? Johnson’s WhatsApp Messages Explained

As the Government seek to block access to Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages we take a look at what they’re needed for and what else is happening with the former PM

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The fallout from Partygate and COVID-19 is still continuing and the beleaguered former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, appears to be in even more hot water.

Johnson has, within the past few days, been referred to the police again for apparent illegal actions during the COVID lockdowns, faced backlash after using public money to fund his legal defence after buying a £3.8 million pound house and for allegedly refusing to hand over WhatsApp messages to the COVID-19 response inquiry.

I know it’s difficult to keep up with it all but I have got you covered. Keep reading to see what the Johnson, Sunak and the Government have been getting up to.

The Party Never Ends

After revelations that multiple lockdown-breaking events were held in Downing Street and Whitehall leading to fixed penalty fines for both the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor – now Prime Minister – Rishi Sunak, an inquiry was announced to look into whether Johnson had misled Parliament after he repeatedly stated to the House that “all guidance was followed”.

An interim report from the inquiry[1]House of Commons Committee of Privileges: Matter referred on 21 April 2022: summary of issues to be raised with Mr Johnson states that “There is evidence that the House of Commons may have been misled” (Page 14, Section 32) and gave Johnson the opportunity to rebut the interim findings which he did in a 52 page response[2]Submissions Of Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP which was released before his televised hearing[3] Committee of Privileges Wednesday 22 March 2023 – Parliamentlive.TV.

While investigating whether Johnson knowingly broke lockdown rules and then told Parliament he didn’t know he’d done so, diaries were handed over which apparently show that Johnson had a dozen “gatherings” at his grace-and-favour home Chequers[4]Independent: Who was at Chequers? Boris camp in panic mode over claims he hosted friends and family.

Ironically it was his own publicly funded defence team that found this information[5]The Guardian: Boris Johnson referred to police over allegedly hosting friends at Chequers in lockdown and passed the details on to the Cabinet Office who then referred the matter to the police as they were “legally obliged to”.

Johnson and his team are claiming that the move is “politically motivated” and that he did nothing wrong – but he said that about the shenanigans in Downing Street and that’s what got him into this mess in the first place.

In yet another twist of irony, if Johnson had decided to foot his own legal expenses instead of asking the Government to cover his costs then the information wouldn’t have had to be turned over.

Questions were already being asked as to why taxpayers were funding the cost of Johnson’s defence team which has already risen to £245,000[6]BBC News: Boris Johnson’s taxpayer-funded legal bill rises to £245,000 when he was able to purchase a nine-bedroom mansion for £3.8 million in cash[7]The Mirror: Boris Johnson paid £3.8m cash for nine-bed mansion – after ‘complaints about £160k salary’.

As a thank-you for their diligence in following the rules (unlike Mr Johnson), the legal team were sacked on the spot[8]Independent: Who was at Chequers? Boris camp in panic mode over claims he hosted friends and family.

The inquiry into whether Johnson knowingly misled Parliament is still ongoing[9]LBC: What was the outcome of Boris Johnson’s Partygate hearing? and is likely to be extended with the new Chequers revelations.

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But that doesn’t mean Johnson can breathe easy just yet.

What’s Up With WhatsApp?

As well as the ongoing (and ever-expanding) probe into Johnson’s misleading of Parliament, a second enquiry is also being held surrounding the Government’s overall response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The inquiry is looking into a broad range of issues such as how cost-cutting before 2020 affected the ability of the NHS to respond, the efficacy of the furlough scheme, how we can better prepare for future large-scale outbreaks and how people were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic[10]ITV News: The Covid-19 inquiry timeline and what it’s hoped it will achieve.

The Inquiry is being chaired by ex-Court of Appeals Judge, Baroness Hallett, a Crossbench peer – meaning she has no particular political affiliation in the House of Lords[11]UK Parliament: Crossbench Peers. As Chair of the inquiry, Hallett has the authority to call witnesses to answer questions under oath and legally demand information/documents be turned over.

It’s the legal demand for information that has got the Government in a bit of a tizzy.

Hallett had asked for WhatsApp messages, emails and other documents such as diaries and notebooks relating to the Government’s response to COVID to be turned over – most notably from Boris Johnson.

The request was sent to Johnson on the 28th of April and Johnson’s team provided what the inquiry asked for, only in heavily redacted form stating that they had removed “unambiguously irrelevant” information[12]HuffPost: Everything To Know About The Row Over Boris Johnson’s Covid WhatsApp Messages.

Hallett said that it was for her to determine what information was relevant to the inquiry or not and asked for the unredacted documents to be released to her – something that they are legally obligated to do.

This is where things start to get rather confusing.

Johnson stated that he had handed over all relevant materials to the Cabinet Office in an unredacted format – this included WhatsApp messages.

The Cabinet Office replied that they didn’t have the WhatsApp messages or Notebooks and essentially said they didn’t know what Boris Johnson was talking about[13]HuffPost: Cabinet Office Now Claims It ‘Does Not Have’ Boris Johnson’s Covid WhatsApps.

Johnson then said that the Cabinet Office had access to the material for “several months”.

Hallett had set a deadline for 4pm on Tuesday 30th of May 2023 for the documents to be handed over, however she extended this until 4pm on Thursday 1st June 2023 because of the seeming confusion over who had the messages.

A spokesman for Johnson said “Mr Johnson has no objection to disclosing material to the inquiry. He has done so and will continue to do so” and Rishi Sunak claimed that his Government were acting in the “spirit of transparency and candour” after already handing over tens of thousands of documents.

Original Tweet Here

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Transparency And Candour Strike Again

As the 1st June deadline loomed it looked like the Government would acquiesce to the inquiry’s legal request, 45 minutes before the deadline passed[14]ITV News: Sunak rejects Covid inquiry’s demand for Johnson’s WhatsApps – what now? the Government announced it was going to call a Judicial review into Baroness Hallett’s request to see the unredacted documentation.

The Cabinet Office are claiming that they are only bringing the action as it would set a dangerous precedent in that MPs may feel they cannot operate freely if they fear that messages may be seized in the future stating the request “represents an unwarranted intrusion into other aspects of the work of Government”[15]Sky News: COVID inquiry: Government seeks judicial review over order to hand Boris Johnson WhatsApp messages.

The request for judicial review has people wondering if Rishi Sunak is trying to cover up his own actions during the pandemic[16]Bloomberg: Rishi Sunak Refuses to Hand Over WhatsApp Texts to UK’s Covid Inquiry, most notably the “Eat Out To Help Out” scheme which may have lead to a rise in infections[17]Full Fact: Did Eat Out to Help Out cause Covid to spread? and that the Government (and therefore Sunak) was aware of this. The unredacted documents could also call into question how things like PPE contracts were awarded and how closely the science was actually followed[18]The Guardian: Battle to withhold Covid messages is about much more than Boris Johnson.

What Is A Judicial Review Anyway?

A judicial review is a legal process in the United Kingdom that allows individuals and organisations to challenge the lawfulness of decisions made by public bodies. It’s a way of holding public bodies such as Councils or the Government accountable for their actions and ensure that they comply with the law.

To bring a judicial review case, you must first show that you have a “sufficient interest” in the decision being challenged. This means that you must be able to show that you have been personally affected by the decision, or that the decision has a wider impact on the public (or in this case MPs and the Government).

Once you have established that you have a sufficient interest, you must then show that the public body has acted unlawfully. This could mean that the public body has:

  • Failed to follow the correct procedures
  • Made a decision that is outside of its powers
  • Made a decision that is irrational or unreasonable

If the court finds that the public body has acted unlawfully, it can order the public body to take steps to correct the unlawful decision. This could mean that the public body has to:

  • Revoke the decision
  • Make a new decision
  • Pay compensation

The time limit for bringing a judicial review case is usually 3 months from the date of the decision being challenged and the review is a discretionary remedy, which means that the court is not obliged to grant a hearing in every case.

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What’s The Next Step In The WhatsApp Saga?

There is a preliminary hearing set for Monday 6th of June and the Cabinet Office has said it will provide more information then.

Presumably they will try and plead their case to allow the inquiry access to the redacted content only – the question is will the Cabinet Office act fairly in redacting the content or will this just encourage the perceived cover-up even more?

Whatever happens on Monday, or if the case makes its way to a full judicial review, don’t expect a speedy outcome, the inquiry is aiming to complete public hearings by the summer of 2026[19]ITV News: The Covid-19 inquiry timeline and what it’s hoped it will achieve so we still have a long road ahead of us yet!

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References

References
1 House of Commons Committee of Privileges: Matter referred on 21 April 2022: summary of issues to be raised with Mr Johnson
2 Submissions Of Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP
3 Committee of Privileges Wednesday 22 March 2023 – Parliamentlive.TV
4, 8 Independent: Who was at Chequers? Boris camp in panic mode over claims he hosted friends and family
5 The Guardian: Boris Johnson referred to police over allegedly hosting friends at Chequers in lockdown
6 BBC News: Boris Johnson’s taxpayer-funded legal bill rises to £245,000
7 The Mirror: Boris Johnson paid £3.8m cash for nine-bed mansion – after ‘complaints about £160k salary’
9 LBC: What was the outcome of Boris Johnson’s Partygate hearing?
10, 19 ITV News: The Covid-19 inquiry timeline and what it’s hoped it will achieve
11 UK Parliament: Crossbench Peers
12 HuffPost: Everything To Know About The Row Over Boris Johnson’s Covid WhatsApp Messages
13 HuffPost: Cabinet Office Now Claims It ‘Does Not Have’ Boris Johnson’s Covid WhatsApps
14 ITV News: Sunak rejects Covid inquiry’s demand for Johnson’s WhatsApps – what now?
15 Sky News: COVID inquiry: Government seeks judicial review over order to hand Boris Johnson WhatsApp messages
16 Bloomberg: Rishi Sunak Refuses to Hand Over WhatsApp Texts to UK’s Covid Inquiry
17 Full Fact: Did Eat Out to Help Out cause Covid to spread?
18 The Guardian: Battle to withhold Covid messages is about much more than Boris Johnson

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