Former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been warned that he could lose UK public funding for legal advice if he tries to “frustrate or undermine” the government’s position on the COVID inquiry. Cabinet Office lawyers have informed Johnson that public money would “cease to be available” if he breaks conditions such as releasing evidence without permission. Johnson confirmed on Friday that he had sent unredacted WhatsApp messages directly to the COVID inquiry, which is being led by the retired judge Baroness Hallett. This was in opposition to the position of the Cabinet Office, which has launched a legal challenge against the request from the inquiry to hand over such material in unredacted form.
Legal Challenge and Letter
The Cabinet Office has said that there are “important principles at stake,” such as the issue of privacy. But in a letter to Baroness Hallett, Johnson stated: “While I understand the government’s position, I am not willing to let my material become a test case for others when I am perfectly content for the inquiry to see it.” The Sunday Times reported a letter sent by Cabinet Office lawyers to Johnson last week that suggests his actions could see him lose public funding for his legal defence. “The funding offer will cease to be available to you if you knowingly seek to frustrate or undermine, either through your own actions or the actions of others, the government’s position in relation to the inquiry unless there is a clear and irreconcilable conflict of interest on a particular point at issue,” it said. They added that funding would “only remain available” if he complied with conditions such as sending the Cabinet Office “any witness statement or exhibit which you intend to provide to the inquiry so that it can be security checked by appropriate officials.”
The Cabinet Office said the letter was “intended to protect public funds” so taxpayer-funded lawyers are not used for any other purpose than aiding the inquiry. Tory donor Lord Cruddas, an outspoken backer of Johnson, who handed him his peerage, urged the former prime minister not to be “held to ransom” by the threat. “Don’t worry @BorisJohnson I can easily get your legal fees funded by supporters and crowdfunding, it’s easy,” he tweeted.
Former culture secretary Nadine Dorries, a staunch ally of Johnson, said it was “not a good look for the government.” “All evidence provided should be unfettered and not restricted by gov censorship – whatever form that may take,” she tweeted.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “This letter from officials simply reiterates that taxpayer-funded lawyers must be used to aid the Covid inquiry and for no other purpose. The letter makes clear Mr Johnson has a duty to provide sincere witness to the inquiry independently and without reference to the views of the current government. This letter was intended to protect public funds. It in no way prevents Mr Johnson from providing whatever evidence he wants to.”