It is not quite “the dog ate it” but Boris Johnson’s excuse for why he cannot yet give Britain’s official Covid inquiry the WhatsApp messages on his old phone – “I’m not allowed turn it on” – is straining credulity among some in Westminster.
The former prime minister used two mobile phones at different times during the Covid era. He had the first from the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020 until May 2021, when he was advised to stop using it for security reasons because its number had been circulating online for 15 years. This is also the phone that Johnson has, so far, refused to give the government, which has been asked to pass its contents on to the inquiry. He says he is acting on security advice to never turn it on again.
He is perfectly willing, however, to pass on to the government and investigators his second device, which he started using after he ditched the old one in May 2021. Funnily enough, that was also the same month that Johnson announced there would be a Covid inquiry, which he must have realised, at the time, would eventually look deep into government communications.
This means the only messages, so far, that he has agreed to share are the ones that he wrote in the full knowledge that a public inquiry would one day probably want to read them. The ones he wrote before that, when he may have had a greater expectation of privacy, are still known only to him. Strange, that.
Johnson insists that he is willing to share the old messages, as long as the government gives him technical assistance to make sure that he doesn’t create some unknown national security risk by switching on his old phone. Cyber experts, such as Alan Woodward of the University of Surrey, who was interviewed about it on BBC Radio on Friday, think it won’t be a problem.
That’s the trouble with having a reputation, as Johnson does, for being an uncomfortable bedfellow of the truth: people will always think you have something to hide, even if you don’t.
The former prime minister might be in a tight spot over his old phone but his position could turn out to be the lap of luxury compared to the tricky perch now occupied by his erstwhile enemy and successor-plus-one, current premier, Rishi Sunak.
Sunak’s government this week said it would take legal action to prevent the inquiry from gaining unredacted access to Johnson’s messages. It says it is doing so on a point of principle to protect government and minsters’ privacy from investigators leafing through irrelevant and personal material. The inquiry says it can decide what is relevant or not.
If the government is successful in being allowed to redact Johnson’s messages, it sets a precedent that could prevent the inquiry from seeking full view of others, such as Sunak’s. And, there is much he wants to keep from public view.
Sunak was chancellor of the exchequer during the pandemic and will want to be remembered for splashing hundreds of billions of pounds of public cash to save people’s lives and livelihoods. Yet, there is also a clear risk for him arising out of the Covid period and he may want to keep secret the background details of it in the form of freewheeling WhatsApps.
As chancellor, Sunak devised and championed the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which spent close to £1 billion subsidising the cost of nights out for people in the summer of 2020, to staunch losses in the hospitality sector.
Months later, Britain suffered a huge spike in Covid infections. A study later blamed the scheme for up to 17 per cent of new cases in the months that followed. Eat Out to Help Out could be Sunak’s reputational Achilles heel. Both he and Johnson potentially have a lot to lose if the Covid inquiry eventually gets to root through all of their private messages.