The government has told the official Covid inquiry it does not have Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages or notebooks.
Officials in the Cabinet Office had been given until 4pm today to hand over a trove of documents to the inquiry, but had refused to do so.
In an update this morning, the inquiry said it had extended this deadline by 48 hours until 4pm on Thursday.
Ministers and the inquiry are on course for for a legal battle over what has to be disclosed.
The government has argued it has no legal duty to hand over “unambiguously irrelevant” material.
But in another twist, the Cabinet Office has also now said “does not have in its possession” the evidence that has been demanded.
Johnson has insisted he does not object to disclosing his evidence. A spokesman for the former prime minister said: “Mr Johnson has no objection to disclosing material to the inquiry. He has done so and will continue to do so.
“The decision to challenge the inquiry’s position on redactions is for the Cabinet Office.”
Speaking earlier today, Rishi Sunak said the government was still considering its response to the demand to hand over Johnson’s documents.
The prime minister told broadcasters in Kent: “I think it’s really important that we learn the lessons of Covid and that’s why the inquiry was established.
“We want to make sure that whatever lessons there are to be learned are learned and we do that in a spirit of transparency and candour.”
The row was sparked by a legal request sent by the inquiry on April 28 for a number of materials, including unredacted WhatsApp messages and diaries belonging to Johnson between January 2020 and February 2022.
Former head of the Civil Service Lord Kerslake told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There’s some cover-up going on here to save embarrassment of ministers. But there’s also the Cabinet Office fighting for a principle of confidentiality.
“I have to say I think they’re misguided on this situation. I actually think it would set a helpful precedent if [inquiry chair] Lady Hallett prevailed in this fight about the information.”
It comes just weeks before the first public evidence sessions are expected to be held.
The Cabinet Office has already provided more than 55,000 documents, 24 personal witness statements and eight corporate statements to the inquiry.
According to the notice seeking the unredacted messages, the inquiry is requesting conversations between Johnson and a host of government figures, civil servants and officials.
The list includes England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, as well as then-chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.
Messages with then-foreign secretary Liz Truss and then-health secretary Matt Hancock are also requested, as well as with former top aide Dominic Cummings and then-chancellor Sunak.