Last year I made a joke about asking the Russians if they could give us access to all the hidden business conducted by Ministers via WhatsApp, as this was the only way we would get any transparency and accountability. Perhaps Lady Hallett was in the chamber and thought 'well, a future chair of the Covid Inquiry could always request them and they would have to hand them over.' And now it's happening. She is aiming to do what the National Audit Office could not and be the person who decides what messages are relevant.
It is disappointing to see political pundits reduce this to a discussion about whether the Ministers are worried about exposing inappropriate comments made in a time of crisis. This is not primarily about politicians worrying about a negative public reaction to their gallows humour. This is about exposing a corrupt network of exchanges between Ministers and their friends over PPE fast-track contracts and policy decisions influenced by party donors.
When the National Audit Office (NAO) examined the contracts it said there were gaps in the information available. When I asked questions about business done on WhatsApp, they admitted that the NAO only had access to those messages that Ministers felt were relevant. If the Minister didn't want to disclose a conversation with a friend about the awarding of a £120m contract, then that was purely at their discretion. The NAO had no power to access it.
There is no evidence to support the assumption that Ministers, or the Prime Minister, would act in an honest fashion, yet that is how the system works. It’s been left to journalists and lawyers to lift the lid on a government cover-up and expose the clear connections between Ministers and the Covid contracts going to personal friends, relatives and political donors.
When the Good Law Project took successful legal action to shed more light on this contract system, we then discovered that one of the Ministers had inconveniently dropped and broken the phone with all the messages and it was beyond repair. Are we really expected to believe this? You may remember that Boris Johnson is reported to have told his ministerial standards adviser that he did not disclose messages exchanged with a Tory donor about his flat refurbishment because they were on an old phone. They simply slipped his mind. We can expect more of this.
Any police investigation into corruption could use the powers they have to recover messages and to work in conjunction with the National Audit Office and the Electoral Commission to follow the money. I’ve no doubt that it would be a worthwhile investigation that would bring to light the system that wastes and siphons off vast amounts of public money into private hands.
Corruption is one of the defining features of this government. It is endemic but has all the vestiges of being authorised and regulated outside the reach of civil servants and recorded entries.
Hallett has said a failure to hand over the unredacted material, which also includes Johnson’s notebooks containing contemporaneous notes, would be a criminal offence. In this, she has my complete support.