Why Boris Johnson's move to embarrass Rishi Sunak could backfire on him

His ability to make trouble is exposed by the flawed ticking time-bomb of the UK’s Covid inquiry

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and former prime minister Boris Johnson during the Remembrance Sunday service in London last November. PA
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Boris Johnson has found himself in his favourite position. He is able to make unwanted trouble for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and enjoy the fallout.

Never mind that once again, Mr Johnson is waging a war based on half-truths – of which more later – or that this is chaos borne of Mr Johnson’s own making from his own disaster-flecked time in power.

Last week, the former prime minister vowed to hand over his WhatsApp messages for the official British inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic and its handling by Whitehall. Except, that is half the story. His phone before 2022 is inaccessible and he can only turn over subsequent messages that are largely not a contemporaneous record.

The announcement made a fool of Mr Sunak and the UK’s Cabinet Office, which has gone to court to hand over redacted versions of the files to the judge-led inquiry.

As it is, the inquiry is expected to be a many-year affair. These investigations have a near-century-long track record in the UK, and they are generally surrounded by media controversy throughout their lifecycle.

Mr Johnson’s double-dealing with the inquiry conveniently camouflages the fact that he should have avoided this showdown by setting up the inquiry, when he was prime minister, with a more ambitious remit to report along a faster timeline.

There is an ideological shadow over the inquiry, best expressed by The Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee last week. The title of her article on what she hoped for from the inquiry sought to show that the UK had been laid defenceless since 2010 by the austerity politics of the Conservative-led government.

In particular, she wants the body to show that George Osborne’s structural reforms as chancellor of the exchequer made the country peculiarly sick and prone to disruption on a global basis. “George Osborne destroyed Britain’s safety net. The Covid inquiry should shame him into silence,” it said.

Johnson lost office because of his mishandling of Covid rules. Yet he also defines himself as a saviour in the saga

The judge who opened the inquiry proceedings last July has given some credence to fears of this kind of witch-hunt by telling the government that it has “misunderstood the breadth of the investigation that I am undertaking”, in a statement last week.

Heather Hallett, a retired judge and member of the UK House of Lords, is using statutory powers to pursue the unredacted communications of the officials involved. One problem is that the released chronological records, not material sifted for relevance, has national security implications.

The last time the law was revised around this type of disclosure was 2005, when social media-based messaging apps such as WhatsApp were not around.

Communications at the heart of government were stiff paper-based memos that could be catalogued for judges – not cut-and-trust messaging and toggling between groups.

The judge has shown no inclination to take these factors into account. If there is an equality or social justice-based element of her approach to the Covid inquiry, the format of the materials that she and her panel can review could greatly aid her agenda. Some estimates say the inquiry could, thus, last seven years.

Mr Sunak is undoubtedly keen to have the Covid inquiry sped up. Last month, he ruled that the judge must conduct hearings without a phalanx of other panellists. In a written statement to Parliament, he vowed to ensure the “most efficient and swift” hearings, saying evidence should be heard as quickly as possible so Baroness Hallett would make timely recommendations.

This is very much in accord with Mr Johnson’s claims during the pandemic. Listen closely, or even casually, to the then British leader and he strung together his own lexicon. This involved plenty of words such as zoonotic, pathogens, species and preparedness.

At what he dubbed the first ever “Zoom United Nations General Assembly” in September 2020, he demanded a worldwide network of “zoonotic hubs” to provide a research frontline to identify pandemics before they take off. He devoted the UK presidency of the G7 group of rich nations to a five-point plan to boost pandemic preparedness so that world leaders could say “to the people of the world to say, ‘never again’”.

Paramedics unload a patient from an ambulance parked outside the emergency department at The Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel in December 2021 in London. Getty Images

The government stressed again and again that worldwide funding should ready national health systems and boost disease surveillance at national, regional and global levels.

Even though Mr Sunak was at the heart of the UK’s response to the pandemic with a series of well-designed business support schemes, the melodrama around the Hallett inquiry suits Mr Johnson best.

The former journalist lost office because of his mishandling of Covid rules. Yet he also defines himself as an ultimate saviour in the whole saga. He can point to all those messianic speeches as providing a drive for a route map that others are fluffing.

The upcoming court battle will serve his purpose, but also the alternative narrative that at every turn he could not deliver on his words.

Even supporters of Baroness Hallett concede that time is an essential element. One of these is the accomplished barrister Michael Mansfield, who called for an express-lane inquiry. He chaired a People’s Covid Inquiry a whole two years ago. While it had no powers to rival the official panel, he says one outcome was clear. “They wanted questions answered then in order to prevent its continuance,” he recalled.

It is classic Johnson to share the goals of others but to twist the situation to serve his own goal of rehabilitation. Mr Sunak must now hope that Mr Johnson’s unholy alliance does not stand the test of either the courts or public opinion.

Published: June 05, 2023, 5:00 AM
Updated: June 11, 2023, 6:54 AM