Rishi Sunak’s government has been ordered to turn over Boris Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages, notebooks and diaries to the Covid inquiry in a “humiliating” court defeat.
The Cabinet Office launched legal action against Inquiry Chief Baroness Hallett’s order to declassify the former Prime Minister’s documents – arguing that the government should not release “clearly irrelevant” material.
But in a key ruling Thursday, the Supreme Court dismissed the government’s request for a judicial review. The judges said Baroness Hallett “acted rationally” when asking about Mr Johnson’s messages, concluding it was “very likely” to be linked to key Covid decisions.
Lady Hallett’s team promptly gave the Cabinet Office a new deadline of 4pm Monday to hand over the material, with the Government pledging to comply with the court ruling.
Opposition parties said it would amount to a “humiliating defeat” for the government and accused Mr Sunak of wasting taxpayers’ money to “evade scrutiny”.
Deborah Doyle, spokeswoman for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, described it as “a desperate waste of time and money”. She said the inquiry must now be able to access “all the evidence – not just what the Cabinet Office wants to see”.
Government lawyers had claimed that the Covid inquiry did not have the legal authority to compel ministers to release documents and messages purportedly covering matters “unrelated to the government’s handling of Covid”.
But Hugo Keith KC, the inquiry’s attorney, successfully argued that the Cabinet Office’s decision on whether material was relevant or irrelevant would “emasculate” future public inquiries.
Supreme Court Justices Lord Justice Dingemans and Mr Justice Garnham said: “The diaries and notebooks sought most likely contained information about decision-making relating to the Covid-19 pandemic and therefore relate to a matter at issue in the inquiry.”
The Government took the highly controversial step of opening a public inquiry in court in June, a move that drew criticism after days of arguments between the Cabinet office, Lady Hallett’s inquiry and Mr Johnson’s office.
The former prime minister handed over his unredacted WhatsApp messages, diaries and 24 notebooks to the cabinet office at the end of May. And in a surprising twist last month, Mr Johnson himself backed Lady Hallett and her demand for uncensored information.
The former Prime Minister’s lawyer, David Pannick KC, argued that there was a “real risk” of undermining public confidence in the whole Covid investigation process if the ministry won the litigation.
As a small consolation to the government, the Supreme Court justices also said the head of the Covid inquiry must return any documents she considered “manifestly irrelevant”.
They explained: “In order to answer the practical question that appears to be split between the Cabinet Office and the investigator, the investigator may examine the contested documents, and if the investigator agrees that they are manifestly irrelevant, he will give them.” return.”
After the verdict, a spokesman for the Sunak government said the cabinet office would “fully comply with this verdict and will now work with the investigative team on practical arrangements.”
The Government said it welcomed the emphasis on Lady Hallett returning anything that turns out to be irrelevant. The spokeswoman said the ruling was “a reasonable decision” which “means that the investigator can see the information she may consider relevant”.
They added: “We can work together to reach an agreement that respects the privacy of individuals and ensures that completely irrelevant information is returned and not stored.”
A spokesman said Baroness Hallett was “delighted” with the court ruling. “Following the court’s ruling, the inquiry has amended its order to require disclosure of materials by 4 p.m. Monday, July 10.”
Angela Rayner, Labor Deputy Leader, said Mr Sunak had “wasted time and taxpayers’ money in doomed litigation to withhold evidence from the Covid inquiry”.
She added: “Following this latest humiliating defeat, the Prime Minister must accept the verdict and comply fully with the evidence requested by the Commission of Inquiry. It is time for the evidence to be handed over.”
Christine Jardine, MP and spokeswoman for the Liberal Democrat Cabinet Office, also said it was “a humiliating defeat” for the government, adding that Mr Sunak “should never have wasted taxpayers’ money trying to escape scrutiny and tell the truth.” hide”.
Elkan Abrahamson, a lawyer at Broudie Jackson Canter representing the group Covid-19 Bereaved Families For Justice UK, said it was “the right decision to ensure the inquiry retains its authority and enables it to tell the truth.” to find out.”
He added: “We hope the government accepts the decision and, as they keep urging us after their breaches of the Covid rules, ‘move on’.” We would also urge that the investigation be transparent for us is how she would like the Cabinet Office to be with her – something they have not done since the investigation began.”