Boris Johnson has handed all his unredacted WhatsApp messages and notebooks to the Cabinet Office, urging it to “urgently” disclose the material to the Covid-19 public inquiry.
The former prime minister’s announcement heaps pressure on the government ahead of a 4pm on Thursday deadline to respond to the inquiry’s legal notice about providing Johnson’s documents.
The Cabinet Office has said that material it judges to be “unambiguously irrelevant” to the inquiry should not be passed on, arguing that individuals working in government have a right to privacy regarding messages about their personal life.
Ahead of the deadline to respond to the inquiry, officials said on Wednesday that the government was still considering its options. While these include launching a judicial review, the government is hoping to find a compromise that avoids legal action.
Johnson’s move came as a number of other pandemic-era ministers told the Financial Times that they too would be happy to pass on all their unredacted communications to the inquiry and called on the government to take a “nothing to hide” approach.
The Liberal Democrats also pressed the government to hand over requested material unredacted, arguing that withholding it would amount to a “stitch up”.
Baroness Heather Hallett, the former Court of Appeal judge chairing the inquiry, has to date rejected the government’s argument for redacting material, insisting it is for the inquiry to judge what is relevant to its lines of investigation.
Initially the inquiry ordered the Cabinet Office to hand over Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages, notebooks and diaries. In the past week the Cabinet Office told the inquiry it did not have access to his messages or notes, a claim disputed by Johnson’s allies.
Seeking to explain the contested claim, a government official said that the Cabinet Office lost access to the material last week when Johnson sacked his government-appointed lawyers, who had been working through the documents with him.
On Wednesday, Johnson’s allies confirmed that additional documents had been transferred to the government earlier that day to ensure they had all the evidence requested by the inquiry.
The former prime minister’s spokesman said: “All Boris Johnson’s material — including WhatsApps and notebooks — requested by the Covid inquiry has been handed to the Cabinet Office in full and in unredacted form.
“Mr Johnson urges the Cabinet Office to urgently disclose it to the Inquiry . . . Mr Johnson would immediately disclose it directly to the Inquiry if asked.”
William Wragg, Tory chair of the House of Commons’ public administration and constitutional affairs committee, said it was against the “spirit of an open public inquiry” for the government to refuse to hand over evidence unredacted.
The government’s stance on redacting information has split opinion among frontbenchers who served during the pandemic.
One former minister said: “You have to take a ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ approach on this kind of thing”, while another current minister insisted that “to hand over personal messages without incredibly good reason” would be “a step too far into my privacy”.
The government has handed over more than 55,000 documents to the inquiry. Work and pensions secretary Mel Stride told Sky News: “We absolutely intend to continue to be absolutely transparent and candid.”