The Prime Minister's real motivation for refusing to comply with the COVID Inquiry is not to protect Boris Johnson – but to protect himself, reports Adam Bienkov
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What is Rishi Sunak really trying to hide? That’s the inevitable question posed by the Prime Minister’s continued refusal to hand over key diaries and WhatsApp messages to the COVID Inquiry.
The refusal is no small thing. Under the terms of the Inquiries Act, ministers have a legal obligation to hand over any material which the inquiry's chair, Lady Hallett, demands of them. Failure to do so could constitute a crime.
That Sunak is continuing to refuse anyway suggests that he has good motivation to do so. So what might it be?
Initial reporting suggested that his obstruction was designed to protect his predecessor Boris Johnson. But this does not hold up to much scrutiny. The Cabinet Office has already handed over Johnson’s official diaries to the police, in relation to Partygate. A spokesman for the former Prime Minister has also insisted he is willing to comply with any request made to him by the inquiry.
The real reason for the brick wall Sunak is constructing is likely to be much closer to home. As Sunak’s spokesman told Byline Times this week, the refusal is really about the “precedent” that such disclosure would set.
“It would not be appropriate to compel the Government to disclose unambiguously irrelevant material given the precedent that it would set and the adverse impact it would have on the right to privacy,” he said.
A Downing Street insider added that this was a "fundamental principle" and releasing the messages would be a "step too far".
So what principle are they really referring to here?
To put it simply, Downing Street's refusal is less about the former Prime Minister than it is about the current one.
If Downing Street was to comply with Lady Hallett’s request to release Johnson WhatsApp messages then ut would also have to comply with her request to release Sunak’s messages too. The real ‘privacy’ referred to by Downing Street here is not Johnson’s – but Sunak’s.
The more you peel at Sunak's justification for refusing, the more it flakes away. Lady Hallett is a highly respected figure who was appointed by the Government itself. The idea that she could not be trusted to judge which material supplied to her was relevant, and which was not, is ludicrous.
Again, Downing Street does not seem to fear that the material released to Lady Hallett will be “unambiguously irrelevant” – but that it may be all too relevant.
But the row over Boris Johnson's WhatsApp messages also reveals a broader, systemic, problem.
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As things stand, the power to decide which information is relevant for public disclosure, and which is not, resides wholly with the Government. Under official guidelines, ministers are free to conduct their business on WhatsApp, but only if they retain all “relevant” messages so that they can be accessed later.
However, as Sunak’s spokesman confirmed to this newspaper, the decision on 'relevance' lies with ministers themselves.
Like so much of what happens in the British system, this relies upon the so-called ‘good chaps’ theory of governance, whereby ministers are simply trusted to act in the right way.
Yet, should they ever decide to act otherwise – as Johnson repeatedly did while in office – then there is absolutely nothing in the current system to stop them. As Byline Times has covered extensively, this results in a tendency not to disclose relevant information, even when the law suggests that it should be.
While it is easy for ministers to essentially ignore, or evade, Freedom of Information requests from news organisations, doing so to an official government-commissioned inquiry would be quite another matter. Lady Hallett's power to legally compel the release of information under the threat of criminal sanction is a clear and present danger to this unaccountable system.
It is also a clear and present danger to Sunak himself.
During the pandemic, the former Chancellor made a series of highly controversial decisions. These included the launch of the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, which some studies suggest may have caused large numbers of additional infections and deaths, as well as outright fraud.
Ministerial WhatsApps during this period are likely to contain significant discussion and disagreement about this policy. It is also easy to imagine that they could contain very relevant information about controversial PPE contracts and the people who obtained them.
It is obviously in Sunak’s personal and political interests that the decision on whether to release this information should remain with him and his Government alone. However, it is not, as Lady Hallett has already identified, in the public interest for that to happen.
The decisions taken by the Government during the pandemic will likely go down in history as the most significant taken by any British administration in modern times.
Tens of thousands of people died and thousands of businesses were closed as a direct result of those decisions, many of which were likely formulated through internal WhatsApp discussions.
Of course it would be unreasonable to expect all internal Government communications to be public disclosed. However, it should be for an independent figure like Lady Hallett to decide what is relevant and what is not, rather than it being left to the very people who her inquiry was set up to scrutinise.
Rishi Sunak's continued refusal to comply with her request should go down as a landmark moment in the history of his Government.
Earlier this year, the Prime Minister insisted that he was a principled believer in transparent government. “I think transparency is really important for the healthy functioning of democracy,” he said, adding that “transparency is a good thing, and I fully support it."
This claim now looks impossible to justify.
Whether its the long-delayed release of his tax returns, which revealed zero details of his foreign earnings; or the similarly delayed release of his ministerial interests, which hid all details of his wife's financial interests, Sunak's commitment to transparency, just like his commitment to "accountability" and "integrity" seems to have evaporated almost immediately after he made it.
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