Boris Johnson should be open and transparent - GulfToday

Boris Johnson should be open and transparent

Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie Johnson arrive at Westminster Abbey in London.     File/Agence France-Presse

Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie Johnson arrive at Westminster Abbey in London. File/Agence France-Presse

You shouldn’t be surprised that Boris Johnson is so anxious to keep his activities during the pandemic secret. I mean, I’m not saying he has anything to hide exactly, because that would be grossly unfair; but we know what he’s like. The extent of his efforts to get his old colleagues in government to withhold diaries, documents and WhatsApp messages from the Covid inquiry is striking — up to and including a threat to sue His Majesty’s Government (with the hard-pressed British taxpayer footing the bills for both sides).

So far, the Cabinet Office seem to be willing to try and help the old monster, but they don’t have a leg to stand on, legally speaking.

Why is this the case? Ironically, it’s because Boris Johnson, when still PM, granted the inquiry sweeping statutory powers to call for evidence of all kinds; gave the inquiry wide terms of reference, as demanded by the public; and appointed a formidable lawyer, the senior judge Baroness (Heather) Hallett to head it. Perhaps Johnson didn’t think the detailed implications through (quelle surprise), assumed he’d be able anyway to manipulate matters from his base in Number 10, from which he has now been booted, and basically thought it would all be irrelevant by the time he would be nearing the next general election and his smooth path to a historic fifth successive term for the Conservatives. Never a man to dwell on the downside of his actions, I imagine he knew he had to concede a powerful investigation into the mistakes made during the pandemic, and basically thought he’d get away with it, as ever, by kicking it all into the long grass.

But then came the horrors of Partygate, with all the public revulsion at his hypocrisy and law-breaking and his downfall. Now a mere backbencher, albeit with a cult-like following, he is extremely vulnerable to the intense scrutiny that dozens of lawyers will bring to his activities during the emergency. The general consensus on the Johnson administration for those that were part of it, from Dominic Cummings to Guto Harri — to, lately, Cleo Watson — is that it was dysfunctional, chaotic and unserious, even at the best of times. The noble baroness is interested, on behalf of public and parliament, in discovering quite how chaotic, such that lessons can be learned. That’s her job and she wants to get on with it. She’s not prepared to assist Johnson in some cover-up, and rightly so. In Hallett, he has met his match. He has only himself to blame. It was he who misbehaved in the first place — and who then set up the inquiry under the 2005 Inquiries Act, which bestows wide powers on the chair of such an official inquiry. Hallett is asking for full use of them. Johnson and the Cabinet Office argue that they are redacting some of the evidence because it is irrelevant, so it is being withheld by the civil service. Hallett is telling them: “No, I will be the judge of that”.

Ignoring the legalese, she gets to the point in her latest ruling, magisterially sweeping aside the Cabinet Office and Johnson’s legally weak arguments: “I note that there appears to be no disagreement over the scope of the power conferred upon me by section 21 of the 2005 Act. The application correctly recognises that the statutory scheme permits me to seek disclosure (through the mechanisms of Rule 9 of the Inquiry Rules and/or section 21 of the 2005 Act) of documents that are potentially relevant to the lines of investigation that I am pursuing. That is an inevitable consequence of the inquisitorial function that any public inquiry under the 2005 Act must discharge.”

“Potentially relevant” is the point here, and it’s up to her and her team to sort the wheat from the chaff. She wants the whole picture of what was going on as the coronavirus story broke and the emergency proceeded over 2020 and 2021. For example, we already know, from Cummings’ basically uncontested account, that on a crucial day, 12 March 2020, when the prime minister ought to have been able to devote attention to the momentous question of lockdown, he was also having to answer President Trump’s call for joint bombing raids on Iraq — and a problem with his pet dog, Dilyn. As Cummings told MPs later:

“So, everything to do with Cobra that day on Covid was completely disrupted because you had these two parallel sets of meetings, you had the national security people running in and out talking about, ‘Are we going to bomb the Middle East?’

“And then to add to it, it sounds so surreal it couldn’t possibly be true, that day The Times had run a huge story about the prime minister and his girlfriend and their dog, and the prime minister’s girlfriend was going completely crackers about this story and demanding that the press office deal with that. “So, we have this sort of completely insane situation in which part of the building was saying, ‘Are we going to bomb Iraq?’, part of the building was arguing about whether or not we’re going to do quarantine or not do quarantine and the prime minister has his girlfriend going crackers about something completely trivial.” Or, to take another moment, when he confided to Cummings that the-then health secretary, Matt Hancock was “totally hopeless”, why didn’t he sack him?

This is the sort of thing Hallett and her team need to examine, even if it’s going to be intensely embarrassing for Johnson if any of it eventually ends up in the public domain. Hallett needs to understand and assess how key decisions were taken — the whole context. She needs, retrospectively, to “be in the room” and be a vicarious member of the WhatsApp groups. So far, we have been too reliant on Cummings and Hancock’s accounts of what happened. The Hallett Inquiry has to weigh all the witness accounts and other evidence. If Johnson was dealing, say, with his divorce from Marina Wheeler at the time, that is of course private; but insofar as it affected his judgments, policy and the public health of the nation it is very much a matter of public interest. For the inquiry is partly a judgment on the way he (and many others) personally dealt with the “big calls”, and partly a view on how the machinery of the British state dealt with this unprecedented emergency.

Johnson has always tried to keep his private affairs out of sight of the public, and has resisted all attempts to make himself accountable for his sometimes complicated relationships. That is understandable. Yet, in the office he held (to borrow the cliche): the personal is political, and never more so than when many thousands of lives were at risk. Like the royal family and other high-profile people in public life, the distinctions between the purely private and the public are necessarily blurred. When, for example, in 1956 Anthony Eden led the UK into the disastrous Suez expedition, we now know that he was very ill and suffering from fevers. We know (now) that may have damaged his judgements. His health was a private matter, but it had public consequences. We similarly need to know Johnson’s state of mind and quality of decision making in the biggest crisis since the Second World War. Those with status, power and influence are not AI-driven automatons, and their behaviour has to be up for debate. You could even argue that about Philip Schofield.

In any case, there is really no point in Johnson or the Cabinet Office trying to use political or moral arguments with Hallett, because it is a purely legal matter — and, short of parliament recasting the entire Covid Inquiry, matters must take their course, with the sanction of criminal penalties. This is only the first skirmish between Johnson and Hallett as he scrambles to protect what’s left of his reputation, and he’s not going to win. Johnson should make the most of his predicament — and be open and transparent. In short, he should publish and be damned.

Related articles