Boris Johnson will not be restricted over what he can tell the Covid Inquiry despite being warned that he could lose public funding for legal advice if he tries to “frustrate or undermine” the government’s position, a senior minister has said.
Robert Jenrick also insisted it would not be “sensible or reasonable” to hand over ministers’ documents or messages if they are deemed irrelevant to the pandemic as the government takes the official investigation to court to try to limit disclosure.
Cabinet Office lawyers have written to Mr Johnson to warn that money would “cease to be available” if he breaks conditions such as releasing evidence without permission.
.@SophyRidgeSky: Do you not trust the inquiry to decide what's relevant?@RobertJenrick: "It's not a question about whether we trust the inquiry."#Ridge https://t.co/ZoMhCmTrtv
📺 Sky 501, Virgin 602, Freeview 233 and YouTube pic.twitter.com/9wUdkN3Gxg
— Sophy Ridge on Sunday & The Take (@RidgeOnSunday) June 4, 2023Advertisement
The former prime minister has been at the centre of a row as ministers launched a High Court bid to challenge the inquiry’s demand for his unredacted WhatsApp messages and notebooks.
He has vowed to send all his messages to the official investigation directly, circumventing the Cabinet Office.
He has had legal advice paid for by the taxpayer, but the Sunday Times detailed the letter from Government lawyers containing the warning to Mr Johnson.
“The funding offer will cease to be available to you if you knowingly seek to frustrate or undermine, either through your own actions or the actions of others, the Government’s position in relation to the inquiry unless there is a clear and irreconcilable conflict of interest on a particular point at issue,” it said.
But Mr Jenrick insisted it is “entirely up to the former prime minister how he co-operates with the inquiry”.
The Home Office minister told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “If he wishes to send his documents or WhatsApp messages to them then he’s at liberty to do so.
“He can advance whatever arguments he wants to and make whatever statements he wishes in his witness statement to the inquiry.
“There’s absolutely no sense that the Government will restrict what Boris Johnson wants to say, but if you use taxpayer funds obviously you should make sure you’re using them appropriately.”
He denied there are fears in No 10 that Rishi Sunak’s messages could reveal a plot to try to bring down Mr Johnson, saying: “No, as I say, the issue here is a simple legal one.”
While Mr Johnson is at the centre of the row at the moment, the Government is trying to avoid having to hand over what it sees as irrelevant messages from other ministers.
This could include evidence from the Prime Minister, who was chancellor during the pandemic.
Mr Jenrick told Ridge: “We want to hand over to the Covid Inquiry absolutely anything that has anything to do with Covid-19 or the purpose of the inquiry.
“Where there’s a point of difference is that we don’t think it’s sensible or reasonable to hand over documents or messages that have nothing whatever to do with Covid-19.”
As a former lawyer, he said, the “normal way to do this is to set reasonable parameters” but not to ask for things “wholly unrelated”.
This is not a good look for the Government. All evidence provided should be unfettered and not restricted by gov censorship - whatever form that may take. https://t.co/bBIufEK91C
— Rt Hon Nadine Dorries MP (@NadineDorries) June 3, 2023
He insisted the Government has the “highest regard” for inquiry chairwoman Baroness Heather Hallett and is not asking for “special treatment”.
“I hope this can be resolved indeed even before the matter gets to court,” he added.
The Cabinet Office insisted the letter to Mr Johnson was “intended to protect public funds” so taxpayer-funded lawyers are not used for any other purpose than aiding the inquiry.
Former culture secretary Nadine Dorries, a staunch ally of the former Tory leader, said it is “not a good look for the Government”.
“All evidence provided should be unfettered and not restricted by gov censorship – whatever form that may take,” she tweeted.
Conservative donor Lord Cruddas, an outspoken backer of Mr Johnson, who handed him a peerage, urged the MP not to be “held to ransom” by the threat.
“Don’t worry @BorisJohnson I can easily get your legal fees funded by supporters and crowd funding, it’s easy,” he tweeted.
Don’t worry @BorisJohnson I can easily get your legal fees funded by supporters and crowd funding, it’s easy. Don’t be held to ransom, do the right thing for the bereaved families. It’s them that matter now more than anything. https://t.co/MI74nBOprS
— Lord Cruddas of Shoreditch (@peteratcmc) June 3, 2023
After the Government launched its legal battle, Mr Johnson wrote to Lady Hallett, saying he was sending all the unredacted WhatsApps he had given to the Cabinet Office.
He said he would like to do the same for the messages on an old phone he was told not to use after it emerged the number had been available online for 15 years.
That device will be crucial, containing discussions before May 2021 including around the three national lockdowns he ordered.
Mr Johnson told the inquiry chairwoman that he was “not willing to let my material become a test case for others when I am perfectly content for the inquiry to see it”.
The Cabinet Office missed Lady Hallett’s deadline set on Thursday to hand over the requested material.
But the Government department has been trying to resist the publication of messages it believes are “unambiguously irrelevant”.