UK row deepens over Covid breach claims against Boris Johnson
The head of a far-reaching UK inquiry into the government's handling of the Covid pandemic is threatening legal action to obtain former prime minister Boris Johnson's WhatsApp messages and diaries, according to correspondence released Wednesday.
Heather Hallett's demand for the unredacted documentation came after Johnson was embroiled in new drama about alleged breaches of his own government's Covid lockdowns, which police are now investigating.
It emerged on Tuesday that the government's central Cabinet Office had handed two police forces material about the alleged violations at the prime minister's country retreat of Chequers.
They came to light in diaries kept by Johnson which government lawyers have been reviewing for Baroness Hallet's official inquiry -- although the ex-Conservative leader insists on his innocence.
The Cabinet Office stressed that its civil servants were legally bound to inform police of any apparent wrongdoing, but Johnson has condemned the handling of the allegations as "bizarre and unacceptable".
In a letter to Hallet, he insisted he was complying with her disclosure demands -- and announced that he had sacked the government-funded lawyers who were helping him with the inquiry.
But Hallet said the Cabinet Office had only handed over redacted diaries and notebooks of Johnson, and WhatsApps sent by and to him, as she threatened a legal notice to obtain the full material.
"The entire contents of the specified documents are of potential relevance to the lines of investigation being pursued by the inquiry," she said in a statement.
Dismissing a Cabinet Office's bid to throw out her request, Hallet said she had extended a deadline for the unredacted material to be handed over to 4pm (1500 GMT) next Tuesday.
- Witch hunt claims -
Johnson, 58, was ousted as prime minister last summer following a revolt within his ruling Conservative party after months of accusations of "Partygate" lockdown infringements and other scandals.
He repeatedly denied in parliament, and elsewhere, that he or his staff had broken his own pandemic restrictions by holding boozy gatherings in Downing Street.
But London's Metropolitan Police issued fines to dozens of aides after a criminal probe, and Johnson became the first serving UK prime minister found to have broken the law, over one of the gatherings.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was also fined over one gathering in 10 Downing Street, when he was serving as Johnson's finance minister.
But Sunak's press secretary sought to distance her boss from the new controversy engulfing his predecessor.
Asked if Sunak had attended any of the Chequers gatherings under investigation, she said: "No, definitely not."
And Downing Street also denied angry claims by Johnson loyalists that he is the victim of a political witch hunt aimed at preventing his return to high office.
"To be crystal clear, ministers were not involved in the decision at all to refer the information to the police," Sunak's spokesman said.