The British government refused on Thursday to hand over former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Covid-era text messages to a committee investigating the handling of the pandemic, setting off a legal battle that could become a political headache for the current prime minister, Rishi Sunak.
The government’s Cabinet Office faced a deadline of 4 p.m. to turn over unredacted text messages, diaries and notebooks belonging to Mr. Johnson. But it dug in its heels, arguing that to do so would compromise private exchanges between senior officials and establish a worrisome precedent for future investigations.
Instead, the Cabinet Office asked a court to rule on whether it should be compelled to turn over all the communications, including material it said would be “unambiguously irrelevant” to an investigation of Britain’s Covid response.
“Individuals, junior officials, current and former ministers, and departments should not be required to provide material that is irrelevant to the inquiry’s work,” the government said in a letter to the Covid-19 Inquiry.
“It represents an unwarranted intrusion into other aspects of the work of government,” the letter said. “It also represents an intrusion into their legitimate expectations of privacy and protection of their personal information.”
The chairwoman of the inquiry, Baroness Heather Hallett, contends that it is the job of the committee, not the government, to determine what material is relevant to its investigation. She originally set a deadline of May 30 before agreeing to postpone it by two days in hopes that the Cabinet Office would relent.
Historically, public inquiries in Britain have had broad scope to demand internal government communications. But this is the first inquiry in the era of WhatsApp, the texting app that British officials have avidly embraced for business and personal exchanges, all of which are forever preserved in cyberspace.
The government, analysts said, is worried that the disclosure of WhatsApp messages could embarrass current senior ministers, including Mr. Sunak. He served as chancellor of the Exchequer under Mr. Johnson during the pandemic, arguing forcefully in internal debates against prolonged lockdowns.
To some extent, the standoff is a proxy for deeper tensions between Mr. Sunak and Mr. Johnson. On Wednesday, Mr. Johnson said he had turned over a sheaf of text messages and other material to the Cabinet Office, and he challenged it to hand over the package, unredacted, to the inquiry.
On Thursday evening, he offered to hand over his WhatsApp messages to the inquiry directly, if asked.
The Cabinet Office said its lawyers worked through the night to vet the exchanges for national security concerns and to weed out “unambiguously irrelevant” material. It said it would forward material it deemed relevant. The inquiry has also demanded text messages from a former senior aide to Mr. Johnson, Henry Cook.
The government’s response puts Mr. Sunak in an awkward spot, with critics already suggesting that it is engaged in a cover-up. The disclosure of embarrassing details could hurt his reputation and damage his Conservative Party before a general election that must be held by January 2025.
For Mr. Johnson, who is no longer in the government and whose unfiltered comments about Covid and other matters are well documented, the political risks are lower. He has had icy relations with Mr. Sunak since last July, when Mr. Sunak’s resignation from his cabinet set in motion a chain of events that brought down Mr. Johnson.
The former prime minister expressed fury last week when the Cabinet Office referred new claims to the police that Mr. Johnson had violated lockdown regulations by inviting friends to his country residence, Chequers.
Last year, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Sunak were both fined by the police for attending social gatherings at 10 Downing Street in 2020 and 2021 that violated social distancing regulations. The scandal over lockdown parties was one of the elements that contributed to Mr. Johnson’s fall from power.
The perils of WhatsApp were vividly illustrated in February when more than 100,000 text messages belonging to a former health secretary, Matt Hancock, were handed to The Daily Telegraph by Isabel Oakeshott, a journalist who collaborated with Mr. Hancock on a book about his experience during the pandemic.
Those exchanges captured Mr. Hancock and his fellow ministers discussing the pandemic in often flippant terms, even at a time when it was killing hundreds of people every day. In one text exchange, Mr. Hancock mocked “Eat Out to Help Out,” a program designed to lure people back to restaurants, which was sponsored by Mr. Sunak. He referred to it as “eat out to help the virus get about.”
The reluctance of the government to turn over the new material had less to do with the past than the future, said Jill Rutter, a former civil servant who is now a senior research fellow at U.K. in a Changing Europe, a think tank in London,
“It’s mainly for reputational protection,” Ms. Rutter said. “One of the things they’re worried about is that this will set a precedent for disclosing huge amounts of stuff that would never have been previously disclosed.”