Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak are preparing to launch a legal battle over COVID secrets, just hours before a deadline for handing over sensitive material to the official pandemic inquiry.
Mr Johnson, prime minister during the pandemic, is battling to prevent the Cabinet Office releasing all his unedited WhatsApp messages and diaries to the inquiry’s chairwoman, Baroness Hallett.
With the clock ticking towards the 4pm deadline, Baroness Hallett is demanding to see all government messages, which she claims are vital for the inquiry’s deliberations on COVID decisions.
She is said to have warned the government that failure to release material would amount to a criminal offence, a claim the government disputes and is therefore poised to launch a legal challenge.
The government argues that handing over all ministers’ messages to the inquiry – including those of Mr Johnson – would stop them communicating freely in future and that much of the material is irrelevant.
In a ruling last week, Baroness Hallett said: “The entire contents of the documents that are required to be produced are of potential relevance to the lines of investigation that I am pursuing.”
But the government’s opposition to handing over WhatsApp messages and diaries in full and the threat to launch a legal challenge was strongly backed by the former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith.
Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, he accused Lady Hallett of “trying to be Agatha Christie” by turning the COVID inquiry into a “whodunnit” rather than “whatdunnit”.
Sir Iain said: “It’s completely unnecessary chasing individuals. They are on a fishing expedition and they should stop fishing. There is enough evidence out there to know what went wrong.”
Mr Johnson has claimed publishing his diaries in full would be a breach of national security.
And the standoff now appears to be heading for the extraordinary spectacle of a legal battle between the government and the inquiry.
Mr Sunak and the former PM are expected to speak this week, for the first time since last year, about their approach to the COVID inquiry and also to discuss the former PM’s controversial resignation honours list.
Mr Johnson is already furious with the Cabinet Office for referring a dozen diary entries to the police and the Privileges Committee of MPs, which is investigating claims that he lied to the House of Commons.
As a result, officers from the Metropolitan Police and the Thames Valley force are now considering whether meetings that took place with allies in Downing Street and at Chequers in May 2021 broke COVID rules.
The diary entries include Chequers visits by outgoing BBC chairman Richard Sharp, Mr Johnson’s cousin Sam Blyth, who loaned him £800,000, and Tory peer Lord Brownlow, who funded decorations to the Downing Street flat.
Another diary entry refers to a visit to Chequers by two friends of Carrie Johnson, though Mr Johnson’s spokesman has insisted that this event was “entirely lawful”.
In an exclusive Sky News interview at Dulles Airport in the United States last Friday, a defiant Mr Johnson declared: “None of them constitute a breach of the rules during COVID. They weren’t during lockdown.
“They were during other periods of the restrictions. None of them constitute a breach of the rules. None of them involve socialising. It is total nonsense.”
Mr Johnson’s allies are also accusing Oliver Dowden, Cabinet Office minister, deputy prime minister and Mr Sunak’s closest ally, of sanctioning “a political stitch-up” to smear Mr Johnson and prolong the Privileges Committee inquiry.
It has been reported that Mr Johnson believes Mr Dowden “has form”, after helping to trigger his downfall last year with a dawn resignation as party chairman within hours of two disastrous by-election defeats for the Conservatives.
The former PM told Sky News: “I think it’s ridiculous that elements of my diary should be cherry-picked and handed over to the police, to the Privileges Committee, without even anybody having the basic common sense to ask me what these entries referred to.”
Johnson allies have also demanded a leak inquiry to catch the “ratty rat” who disclosed that his diary entries had been passed to police, a reference to the so-called “chatty rat” who leaked a lockdown announcement in November 2020.
Despite the threat of a looming legal battle, a spokesperson for the Cabinet Office said: “We are fully committed to our obligations to the COVID-19 inquiry.
“As such, extensive time and effort has gone into assisting the inquiry fulsomely over the last 11 months.
“We will continue to provide all relevant material to the inquiry, in line with the law, ahead of proceedings getting under way.”