Rishi Sunak will form no judgment on potential further lockdown breaches by Boris Johnson, Downing Street has said, as the former prime minister cut ties with Government lawyers supporting him during the Covid inquiry amid a furious civil war within the Conservative party.
Mr Johnson believes he is the victim of a politically motivated plot as he faces a fresh police inquiry into new ‘Partygate’ allegations.
Senior Tories have complained of a Whitehall "witch hunt", with the finger also pointed at Mr Sunak, while Downing Street deny all knowledge.
The row comes after entries in Mr Johnson’s official diary revealed visits by friends to Chequers during the pandemic and new allegations about his behaviour in Downing Street.
Cabinet Office officials passed concerns to the Met and Thames Valley Police after the new information came to light during a review by taxpayer-funded lawyers ahead of the Covid public inquiry.
Now dropping his taxpayer-funded lawyers for new ones, Mr Johnson has also seen his allies announce a flurry of threats against Mr Sunak.
There is talk of fresh letters of no confidence in Mr Sunak being collected – something considered more dangerous following the removal of predecessor Liz Truss, with numerous factions unhappy.
There is also fresh talk of by-elections. Nadine Dorries, Nigel Adams and Alok Sharma are all expected to step back from the House of Commons before the next election to take up peerages granted in Mr Johnson’s resignation list.
But the former prime minister’s supporters now suggest the three MPs could leave their seats earlier than expected to make life difficult for Mr Sunak, whose party languishes ten points behind Labour.
It came on another remarkable day in Westminster that saw the Cabinet Office threatened with legal action amid a spat with the official UK Covid-19 inquiry.
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 the former prime minister between January 2020 and February last year.
In May, the Cabinet Office sought to resist that request, which was made under section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005 and which also applies to messages from former adviser Henry Cook.
But in an eight-page ruling, released among several other documents on Wednesday, inquiry chairwoman Lady Hallett rejected the argument the inquiry’s request was unlawful and claimed the Cabinet Office had “misunderstood the breadth of the investigation”.
In her response, she said the requested documentation was of “potential relevance” to the inquiry’s “lines of investigation”.
The ruling, dated May 22, argues “to evaluate the response of the Government and/or of any individual minister to the pandemic, it may be necessary for reasons of context for me to understand the other (superficially unrelated) political matters with which they were concerned at the time”.
Baroness Hallett added “such matters may acquire greater significance where it appears to me, or it is otherwise suggested, that a minister dealt with Covid-related issues inadequately because he or she was focusing (perhaps inappropriately) on other issues”.
“For similar reasons, I may also be required to investigate the personal commitments of ministers and other decision-makers during the time in question,” she said.
Baroness Hallett added: “There is, for example, well-established public concern as to the degree of attention given to the emergence of Covid-19 in early 2020 by the-then prime minister.”
Noting “those who hold documents will never be in as good a position as the inquiry itself to judge the possible relevance to the inquiry of documents they hold”, she said some “important passages” had initially been declared “unambiguously irrelevant” by the Cabinet Office.
Baroness Hallett gives the example of “discussions between the Prime Minister and his advisers about the enforcement of Covid regulations by the Metropolitan Police during the public demonstrations following the murder of Sarah Everard”.
Downing Street on Wednesday insisted the Government was supplying “all relevant material” to the inquiry.
The fallout adds to the problems facing Mr Sunak, who was fined over a gathering in Downing Street during the pandemic along with Mr Johnson in June 2020.
Mr Sunak “definitely” did not go to the Chequers grace-and-favour retreat in contravention of coronavirus rules when he was chancellor during the pandemic, his press secretary said.
The Prime Minister has not discussed the controversy with his predecessor, she suggested, as she declined to answer a “hypothetical” question on whether Mr Johnson would lose the Tory whip if police were to charge him.
According to the notice seeking the unredacted messages, the inquiry is requesting conversations between Mr Johnson and a host of Government figures, civil servants and officials. The list includes England’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty, as well as then-chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.
Messages with then-foreign secretary Ms Truss and then-health secretary Matt Hancock are also requested, as well as with former top aide Dominic Cummings and then-chancellor Mr Sunak.
The inquiry had also asked for “copies of the 24 notebooks containing contemporaneous notes made by the former prime minister” in “clean unredacted form, save only for any redactions applied for reasons of national security sensitivity”.
Downing Street said the Government would “consider our next steps carefully” in responding to the notice from the inquiry. A deadline of 4pm on May 30 has been set for the Government to respond to the request.
In a statement, Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice said: “It’s outrageous that the Cabinet Office think they can dictate to the inquiry which of Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages they can see.
“This inquiry needs to get to the facts if it is to learn lessons to help save lives in the next pandemic, so well done to Baroness Hallett for standing up to the Cabinet Office on this occasion.”
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said: “The fact the Covid inquiry has had to invoke legal powers to compel the handover of crucial documents suggests that this is a Government with much to hide. Rather than fighting legal battles to withhold evidence, it is essential that ministers now comply so the public is able to get to the truth and those responsible can be held to account.”
Among the documents released on Wednesday was a letter sent by Mr Johnson to the inquiry chairwoman.
The former prime minister said he was “currently instructing new solicitors to represent” him, writing: “As at today, I am unrepresented and my counsel team have been instructed not to provide me with any advice.”
Mr Johnson also suggested it would be “highly prejudicial” to him for the inquiry to publish its ruling on the row without seeing it beforehand and said any implication he had failed to provide documents would be “unfair and untrue”.
A spokesperson for Mr Hancock said: “Matt has made all his records and materials available to the inquiry without making any redactions for relevance. Matt feels very strongly that full transparency is vital, so all lessons can be learned.”