Former UK prime minister Boris Johnson
On Wednesday, Boris Johnson made great play of his willingness to share his unredacted WhatsApp messages, diaries and personal notebooks to the Covid-19 public inquiry.
But, around 24 hours later, it emerged the former prime minister’s call to transparency was only up to a point: the WhatsApp messages passed to officials are only from May 2021 onwards.
So where are the messages from the start of the pandemic?
The answer to the whereabouts of the errant WhatsApps – and why they haven’t been released – involves an old mobile phone and the gossip newsletter Popbitch.
It comes as Rishi Sunak’s government on Thursday took the unprecedented step of launching a legal battle against its own public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic in an effort to stop the release of full versions of Johnson’s cache of documents. The cabinet office, a government department which supports the work of the prime minister, cites privacy concerns for its actions – arguing that it should not have to hand over material which is “unambiguously irrelevant”.
But in a statement, another curious line emerged.
Senior civil servant Ellie Nicholson said the cabinet office had received Johnson’s WhatsApp messages on Wednesday afternoon – as the ex-PM had trumpeted – and was reviewing the material “for national security sensitivities and unambiguously irrelevant material, and appropriate redactions are being applied”.
But she added: “In that material, there are no WhatsApp communications before May 2021. I understand that this is because, in April 2021, in light of a well-publicised security breach, Mr Johnson implemented security advice relating to the mobile phone he had had up until that time.”
The “well-publicised security breach” relates to Popbitch revealing at that time that his number had been publicly available online for 15 years – more specifically at the bottom of an old press release.
So where is the old phone?
In its statement, the cabinet office said Johnson’s lawyers have not provided a “substantive response” to its request for his old device. So where is it?
Boris Johnson spokesman on the pre-May 2021 messages:
"Mr Johnson was given advice by security officials never to turn on the old device. The effect is that historic messages are no longer available to search and the phone is not active."
What a palaver.. pic.twitter.com/U7PKxIgYuj
— Harry Cole (@MrHarryCole) June 1, 2023
The Sun reported a spokesperson saying Johnson was given security advice to not turn on the old device again – meaning that he was unable to see the earlier messages. But he was happy to pass the phone to the inquiry if needed, the newspaper said.
Johnnson’s spokesperson reportedly said: “He has written to the cabinet office asking whether security and technical support can be given so that content can be retrieved without compromising security.
“The cabinet office has long been aware of the status of the phone.”
Johnson also said on Thursday he was “more than happy” to hand over the relevant material directly to the inquiry – bypassing the government.
“If you wish to have this material forthwith, please let me know where and how you wish me to send it to you,” he said in a letter.