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1 June 2023

Rishi Sunak must stop trying to appease Boris Johnson

In trying and failing to satisfy Johnson’s supporters over the Covid inquiry, the Prime Minister has only made himself look weak.

By David Gauke

That the government has got itself into a muddle over the disclosure of WhatsApp messages and diary entries relating to Boris Johnson to the Covid public inquiry is not in doubt. For days it has stated that it was unwilling and then unable to meet the demands of Baroness Hallett, the inquiry’s chair. On Wednesday 31 May Johnson made it clear that the Cabinet Office now has the information and that he does not object to it being shared.

The options for the government are limited. It could simply refuse to co-operate but that, ultimately, will lead to a finding of contempt of court. The government could seek to judicially review Hallett’s demands but most legal observers think the government would lose (and, by the way, the irony of a government elected on a manifesto suggesting that judicial review should be curtailed bringing and losing such a case would not be lost on anyone). Or the government could assent to Hallett’s demands.

Short of Hallett agreeing a face-saving compromise, none of these options look attractive for the government. No wonder ministers, especially the Prime Minister, have looked evasive in being unable to go beyond their holding line of expressing confidence that this matter can be resolved in some undetermined way. As I say, a muddle.

So why has the government acted this way?

There is, of course, the traditional Whitehall preference for secrecy. There is merit in the argument that ministers and officials need to be able to communicate confidently in the knowledge that not everything will enter the public domain. Officials need to be able to give frank advice; ministers might try out bold and radical positions, perhaps to test an argument that might look unfortunate if publicly revealed in a different context. An added complication is that WhatsApp is a medium that feels immediate, conversational and confidential. But it is also permanent. In that sense, the ministers of the pandemic era are unfortunate. Previous generations of ministers did not have WhatsApp; future generations will be more careful.

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One also detects that the government is concerned about the breadth of the report. Some old Whitehall hands worried that a judge-led inquiry was more likely to focus on apportioning blame than identifying lessons for the next time the country faces a comparable crisis. Whatever the merits of that view (which remain to be seen), a judge-led statutory inquiry, with statutory powers to obtain evidence, was what the government agreed to. As regards what information is relevant to the inquiry, both public opinion and, in all likelihood, the law will conclude that this power should lie with the chair of the inquiry and not the government.

This is also a row about Johnson. For Johnson and his supporters this is evidence that, after the police investigations, the Sue Gray review, and the Privileges Committee inquiry, Johnson is once again under scrutiny. And scrutiny from Hallett could be more comprehensive and formidable than anything we have yet seen.

Notwithstanding his last-minute agreement to disclosure, this is not a prospect that Johnson will welcome. Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell’s book Johnson at 10 has already revealed that Johnson was hopelessly out of his depth in dealing with the crisis. If the Hallett inquiry confirms this conclusion – and potentially reopens the issue of alleged lawbreaking – Johnson’s reputation will plunge to even greater depths.

The row is also happening at a time when the Conservative right is increasingly paranoid that the “liberal establishment” is out to get them. Whether it be allegations of Dominic Raab’s bullying or Suella Braverman using her position to try to obtain special treatment, the view of the right is that the institutions of the state are picking on Tory Brexiteers. Their pre-eminent figure is Johnson.

There is no conspiracy, of course. It might not be a coincidence that the ministers who keep running into trouble are Brexiteers, but not in the way that their supporters think. The point is that the Conservative right thinks something is up. This may explain the government’s reticence to assist the Hallett inquiry. Sunak does not want to appear to be complicit in further damaging Johnson.

This sensitivity to Johnson’s supporters is a mistake. Sunak will never be able to satisfy them and by trying to keep them onside, he looks weak. He has expended political capital apparently trying to protect Johnson not, presumably, because he wants to, but because he worries about the consequences if he does not. He is going to end up pleasing no one.

Sunak, when he first became Prime Minister, promised to uphold the values of integrity, professionalism and accountability. I think he was not only sincere but also implicitly drawing a contrast with Johnson. It was impressively politically ruthless. In his handling of this matter, he could have continued to emphasise this contrast, willing to provoke a row with his predecessor but one. Instead, he has given the impression of seeking to protect Johnson and appease his supporters, looked evasive, been wrong-footed by Johnson (who quickly saw that resistance to disclosure was futile), and will sooner or later lose this battle.

There is a lesson here for Sunak. He can try to keep Johnson onside or he can demonstrate his commitment to integrity, professionalism and accountability. He cannot do both.

[See also: Why are the Tories so spectacularly lazy?]

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