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Years of Secrecy Unravel: UK Cabinet Office Under Scrutiny for Withholding Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp Messages

After two years of investigation by Byline Times and The Citizens, the scandal of secret government communications is finally coming to light

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It’s been a WhatsApp scandal years in the making.

Back in 2021, this paper asked for the WhatsApp messages between then-UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Special Advisor, Dominic Cummings. This was, at first, refused with the claim that the Cabinet Office did not hold the information. 

Further Freedom of Information (FOI) requests were then denied based on arguments of cost (it would come to more than £650); national security (letting people know the PM used WhatsApp posed a security risk); and that the question did not fall under the remit of the FOI Act.

In the end, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) condemned the Cabinet Office in relation to their wholesale FOI refusal. It found the Cabinet Office had failed to conduct comprehensive searches for communications relating to the prorogation of Parliament in September 2019 involving Cummings, despite FOI requests for such.

This condemnation had little impact.

To date, no substantive WhatsApp messages sent or received by the Prime Minister have ever been made officially public (though Dominic Cummings did, in June 2021, independently publish WhatsApp messages from Boris Johnson. These showed the then PM calling his health minister, Matt Hancock, “totally fucking hopeless”.  Also, former PM David Cameron’s lobbying messages in the Greensill scandal also saw the light of day).

This blanket refusal to publish the messages of High Office – however much written in low profanities – might change.

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The Covid inquiry, overseen by the retired judge Heather Hallett, has asked for access to uncensored notes, agendas, and WhatsApp interactions between Johnson and 40 high-ranking government officials. 

Johnson, after initially seeming recalcitrant to hand over anything, changed tack on Wednesday. He now claims he has provided all requested materials for the inquiry and, in typical style, after years of refusing to go public now takes the moral high ground by insisting his messages be presented without redactions. With this tactic, it is clear some could deeply embarrass current ministers.

Yesterday this tactic showed to have worked. The Cabinet Office announced an unprecedented high court bid to avoid handing over Boris Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages to the public inquiry. Meanwhile, MPs and families who’ve lost loved ones have criticised the government’s refusal, with accusations of “concealment” and obstruction of the investigation levelled at PM Rishi Sunak by both the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats.

But this all begs the question: why did the Cabinet Office not have this information in the first place?

Last year, Sarah Harrison, the Chief Operating Officer for the Cabinet Office, gave evidence in court following a legal challenge by the advocacy group The Citizens on the issue of government abuse of WhatsApp. In it, she quoted the Government Digital Service (GDS) policy that if WhatsApp conversations “cover substantive issues, they need to be recorded within the GDS’s records management system – Google Shared drive – to ensure accountability and facilitate ease of search for disclosure exercises, such as Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.“

Regarding No 10’s WhatsApp policy, Harrison informed the court the guidelines were thus: “If you find a chat is unexpectedly developing into a more sensitive conversation, you should move the chat onto the No10 IT system and continue it there.”

Most pertinently, Harrison informed the court that: “Anything relevant to public record would be saved either through the Prime Minister’s Private Office support team, by actions being formally commissioned by officials through Government channels and/or the box process, in accordance with the No. 10 WhatsApp Policy.”

Given it is now known the former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had not had his WhatsApp messages saved by the Prime Minister’s Private Office support team, questions linger.

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Did Ms Harrison, the COO of the Cabinet Office, mislead the court?  If so, did she do so deliberately?

Clara Maguire, Executive Director of The Citizens, said, “It’s clear there is a disconnect between what the Cabinet Office assured the courts and what actually happens on a day-to-day basis in terms of saving WhatsApp messages for posterity. This poses not just a threat to transparency but also raises concerns about willful attempts by No 10 to prevent journalists and citizens from gaining insight into decisions made in the public interest. One thing is clear – the government’s use of WhatsApp is not a friend of accountability.”

In reply, the Cabinet Office stated that Sarah Harrison did not mislead the court and it would be wrong to imply otherwise.  They claimed her evidence dealt with the specific issues raised in the court case, which was determined in the Government’s favour, and this included an explanation of how No10 and the Cabinet Office met the requirements of the Public Records Act 1958, including where non-Government communications systems were used in the development of government policies.  

However, when pressed the Cabinet Office failed to provide evidence that any of the former Prime Minister’s WhatsApp messages had been stored as Ms Harrison claimed they would have been.

In June 2022 the Cabinet Office refused even to tell Byline Times how many WhatsApp messages relevant to the public record were saved through the Prime Minister’s Private Office support team in 2021. They argued that “confirming or denying whether we hold the information requested would be likely to prejudice (a) the prevention or detection of crime and (b) the apprehension or prosecution of offenders.” A request for an internal review was also ignored.

The Cabinet Office has also already refused to share with Byline Times any WhatsApp messages shared with Sue Gray in her investigation into the so-called ‘Partygate’ scandals, where No 10 held social gatherings during lockdown. They argued it would expose “details about the investigation conducted by the Second Permanent Secretary which would reveal information about the investigative methods and information gathering techniques, and assist a person to avoid detection in the future.”

Earlier this year, the Cabinet Office issued new guidance discouraging the use of private messaging apps like WhatsApp in government business to improve transparency and accountability. Their new policy reflects a change in approach but does not prohibit the use of automatic deletion functionality. 

What this current unfolding scandal does, though, is cast a forensic light into the UK Cabinet Office. With their repeated refusal to disclose crucial communications and the subsequent questions raised about transparency and accountability, the public’s trust in the government lies at the heart of this debate. 

As the inquiry into these messages continues and the dispute over relevance and disclosure persists, the true extent of the Cabinet Office’s involvement and potential misconduct – regarding both the FOI Act and evidence submitted in the courts – may well come out. Even Tory science minister George Freeman has said the government is likely to lose the case.

What is clear is that this contentious affair will undoubtedly shape the future standards of government transparency and the expectations placed on those in positions of power for years to come. 

With luck, the misrule of years of Government by WhatsApp may be beginning to end.

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