Rishi Sunak’s government was plunged into an extraordinary row over Boris Johnson’s Whatsapp messages when the official Covid inquiry threatened legal action over its refusal to share details.
The Cabinet Office has so far refused to hand over unredacted copies of the former prime minister’s diary entries, WhatsApp messages and emails, prompting the head of the public inquiry to warn of possible criminal sanctions.
The dramatic development came as Mr Johnson sacked his government-appointed legal team after he was referred to police over further possible rule breaches and as Suella Braverman escaped any further scrutiny over her speeding fine row.
Frustrated Conservative MPs told The Independent Mr Sunak had to get on top of the “damaging” scandals which threaten to derail his efforts to regain credibility and win the next general election.
The fresh split comes as:
- Mr Sunak decided a probe into Ms Braverman’s handling of her speeding offence was “not necessary”.
- Mr Johnson said he had no legal representation as he looks to appoint a new Partygate defence team
- Baroness Hallett rejected Cabinet Office arguments that Mr Johnson’s messages were “personal”
Senior Tories are “seething” at the latest distracting controversies – describing the former PM as “a bad smell that doesn’t go away”.
Tory moderates are keen for Mr Sunak to stop the party getting “dragged back” by Mr Johnson and Ms Braverman, who has avoided a formal investigation despite controversy over her request for a private speed awareness course.
But allies of Mr Johnson and Ms Braverman want the PM to crack down on the civil service – claiming a “blob” of senior Whitehall officials are leading a “stitch up” of leading Tory right-wingers.
One former Tory minister said it was “frustrating” that Mr Johnson’s problems were dragging the party down again ahead of the Covid inquiry. “It’s clearly a problem and a distraction – so the PM has to distance himself. Getting dragged back isn’t going to be helpful.”
Another senior Conservative said the party tearoom was “seething at the carelessness of senior Tories who make other MPs feel like their seats could disappear”.
With Mr Sunak is keen to avoid any appearance of interference in the Covid inquiry, but Baroness Hallett rejected arguments made by the Cabinet Office against the release of “personal” exchanges – warning officials of possible criminal sanctions in the event of legal action.
No 10 denied that the redactions made were politically motivated – saying lawyers had made sure that “personal” messages were of “no relevance” to the inquiry.
Mr Johnson is also furious with the Cabinet Office and is said to be considering suing the department for passing extracts of his diaries to the police over potential rule breaches at Chequers.
One senior Tory figure said the row over Mr Johnson’s time at Chequers and his Whatsapp messages was “here we go again”, adding: “He is like a bad smell that does not seem to go away.”
The leading MP, a Sunak ally, also told The Independent that the PM’s decision on Wednesday not to sack or even investigate Ms Braverman over the speeding row “damages the leadership when it does not need to be damaged”.
They added: “The only reason she is there seems to be because some deal was done in the autumn to stop Boris coming back. But it is blindingly obvious she is not up to the job and her attitude, tone and lack of administrative ability are detrimental to the government.”
No 10 denied Mr Johnson claims by his office that he is the victim of a “politically motivated stitch-up”. Mr Sunak’s spokesman insisted that no ministers were involved in the move by Cabinet Officials to pass evidence about possible Covid rule breaches involving Mr Johnson to police and the privileges committee that will decide whether he will face government sanctions over Partygate.
However, allies of Mr Johnson and Ms Braverman remain suspicious. A group of right-wingers reportedly met on Wednesday to “consider options” on pushing Mr Sunak to stop “witch-hunts” by civil servants.
Right-wing Tory MP Craig McKinlay told The Independent the stories about both Ms Braverman and about Mr Johnson were “rather pathetic” and had “the sniff of contrivance” from disgruntled Whitehall officials.
Mr McKinlay said: “It’s all getting a little odd. It seems you can’t even ask an official for a cup of coffee without it being a problem.”
Another senior Tory backbencher added: “There are some civil servants in the Home Office that simply don’t want Ms Braverman to get on with the job on small boats and migration”, adding that there is “an element of left-wing bias” in the civil service.
One Tory MP suspicious of so many stories being leaked said: “It tends to be [about] ministers who are trying to change things or are on the right of the Conservative Party.”
The latest scandal comes as Mr Sunak faces another looming Tory row over the annual net migration figures released on Thursday which are expected to show a record high of at least 700,000.
While the government has tried to ease anguish with a crackdown on foreign students from bringing their dependents with them to the UK, the huge number is certain set to spark fresh debate over immigration policy. Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith told The Independent that the government had to address the country’s “addiction to cheap labour”.