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1 June 2023

The Covid inquiry will haunt the Conservatives for years

Current and former Tory ministers could be going in and out of public hearings about the pandemic response until 2026.

By Freddie Hayward

The government has until 4pm today to decide whether to hand over government communications sent during the pandemic or face down the Covid inquiry in court. It’s a sign of things to come.

First-hand accounts of the government’s response to the pandemic have so far taken the form of Isabel Oakeshott’s leaking to the Telegraph of Matt Hancock’s text messages, and some belligerent blogging from Dominic Cummings. The Covid inquiry is an opportunity to find out what actually happened in a more systematic way.

Whether the inquiry condemns the government’s pandemic response or not will be key to the reputation of the Conservative Party. Either way, the inquiry is likely to keep the Tories, and by extension Boris Johnson’s premiership, locked in a debate over Covid for years.

The government is reportedly concerned that handing over Johnson’s communications with his ministers will create a precedent for the future. That seems to be a moot point: a public inquiry’s statutory footing gives it pretty strong powers to compel witnesses to produce evidence.

Political pressure on the government to comply from Conservative MPs such as Will Wragg, the chair of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, increases the likelihood that it will cave in. Let’s see. Whatever happens, the focus is on the Sunak vs Johnson sideshow instead of the Prime Minister’s trip today to the European Political Community in Moldova.

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The inquiry is not only preventing the government from talking about its current priorities (you know, the people’s priorities). It could dog the Tories beyond the next election, perhaps for the first two years of a Labour government. The public hearings of the Covid inquiry won’t conclude until the summer of 2026. Newly crowned Labour ministers will be grateful if their opposite numbers are going in and out of those chambers being scrutinised for their inadequate response to the pandemic, from the care system to preparedness.

Sunak has been unable to escape the shadow of his predecessors since he entered No 10. That will continue.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.

[See also: The UK’s mortgage time-bomb is ticking louder than ever]

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