Iain Overton reports on attempts by campaigners to force greater transparency from the Government on the Prime Minister’s use of private messaging apps

The Cabinet Office is considering whether or not to release information on how many WhatsApp messages sent by Boris Johnson in 2021 have been saved for posterity, saying that it could be dangerous to do so in the national interest.

When asked under Freedom of Information (FOI) how many of the Prime Minister’s WhatsApp messages were saved that were relevant to the public record in 2021, the Cabinet Office replied that it requires “further time to consider the public interest test”. The reason cited was “national security”. The Cabinet Office said that it would aim to have a response by 23 May.

Earlier this year, a witness statement was given to the High Court by Sarah Harrison, the chief operating officer for the Cabinet Office, in relation to a court case brought by public interest group The Citizens – challenging the Government on its saving of WhatsApp messages. In it, Harrison claimed that “various WhatsApp groups had been set up [by those in Downing Street]. These were largely used for general discussion or informal conversation”.

“Anything relevant to public record would be saved either through the Prime Minister’s Private Office support team (who provide 24 hour administrative assistance),” said Harrison, or “by actions being formally commissioned by officials through Government channels and/or the box process, in accordance with the Number 10 WhatsApp policy.”

In denying how many messages were saved by Johnson’s Private Office support team, the Cabinet Office stated: “We are considering whether the public interest in neither confirming nor denying whether we hold the information you requested outweighs the public interest in confirming whether we hold it.”

The delay in response to the FOI request comes as the Prime Minister was reported to have messaged Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner to make clear that he views claims about her in a Sunday newspaper as misogynistic. The Mail on Sunday reported that an unnamed Conservative MP claimed that Rayner tries to distract the Prime Minister in the Commons by crossing and uncrossing her legs – akin to the character played by actress Sharon Stone in the film Basic Instinct

It has previously been revealed that Johnson communicated privately, via WhatsApp, with the Conservative Party donor – Lord David Brownlow – who helped to fund the Prime Minister’s lavish Downing Street flat refurbishment. The affair led to the Conservatives being fined £17,800 for “failing to accurately report a donation”.


Transparency Blockade

In the evidence submitted to the High Court, it was also noted that the Prime Minister obtained a new telephone number after his old number was identified as being in the public domain in April 2021.

“In April 2021, in light of a well-publicised security breach,” the Cabinet Office explained, “the Prime Minister implemented security advice relating to a mobile device. The effect was that historic messages were no longer available to search and the phone is not active.”

It was acknowledged that text messages had allegedly been “used as part of the method of communication between the Prime Minister, Dominic Cummings, Professor Sir Chris Whitty and others”, when discussing the Coronavirus pandemic.

Cummings has previously tweeted screen-grabs of a WhatsApp message by Johnson in which the Prime Minister referred to then Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock as “totally f*cking hopeless”. 

The Cabinet Office has stated that it has “no record of any SMS messages being sent conducting Government business” from the Prime Minister to other members of staff.

In her submission, Harrison also acknowledged that the Prime Minister uses a private email in his work “in order to edit speeches”, though she stressed that he does not use it for day-to-day work.

It has previously been revealed that former Junior Health Minister Lord James Bethell – who worked under Hancock – was not able to release WhatsApp messages related to the negotiation of certain COVID-19 contracts because his phone was passed to a family member and wiped, rendering it unsearchable.

He first said that the phone was “lost” – before changing his account of events and claiming that it was “broken”.

The Government has been mired in transparency scandals since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic – famously forced to release a series of documents showing its communication with the healthcare giant Randox, after previously suggesting that it had ‘lost’ the minutes of its meetings with the firm.

More recently, the Labour Party was successful in forcing the Government to agree to release evidence relating to Boris Johnson’s involvement in the appointment of Evgeny Lebedev to the House of Lords.

Baron Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia is the son of a former KGB spy and it has been reported that Johnson personally influenced the security services to drop their official concerns about appointing Lebedev to the Lords.

The Government criticised Labour’s efforts to secure more information about Lebedev’s appointment, but its MPs did not vote against the Opposition’s proposal.

Iain Overton, who leads the Byline Intelligence Team, also works on a freelance basis for The Citizens

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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