The Government has refused to say whether the Covid inquiry asked Rishi Sunak for his WhatsApp messages, amid a row over a “cover-up”.
But the Cabinet Office is contesting the demand, saying the inquiry does not have a right to receive “unambiguously irrelevant material” from any minister or official.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said there was a “whiff of a cover-up” over the Government’s refusal to hand the evidence over.
No 10 has refused to say whether the Prime Minister was asked to hand over his messages and notebooks from the Covid era, during which time he was chancellor.
A spokesman said the Government could not comment on what had or had not been asked for, as that was for the Covid Inquiry to explain.
A spokesman for the inquiry said it would not be saying whether it had asked Mr Sunak for his messages.
Documents disclosed ‘where appropriate’
The inquiry has set a deadline of 4pm on Thursday to hand over Mr Johnson’s messages, notebooks and official diaries, having granted a 48-hour extension on Tuesday.
Lady Hallett also demanded a witness statement from a senior civil servant accompanied by a statement of truth confirming that the Cabinet Office does not have the documents, if it fails to produce them by the new deadline.
This morning, a Cabinet minister said documents would only be disclosed to the Covid Inquiry “where it is appropriate”.
Mel Stride, the Work and Pensions Secretary, said the Government was prepared to be “absolutely robustly transparent” where necessary.
The Cabinet Office has claimed it does not have access to Mr Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and private notebooks, which were demanded by Lady Hallett, and that the Government has a wider objection to the release of “unambiguously irrelevant” material.
Mr Stride told Sky News: “We absolutely intend to continue to be absolutely transparent and candid”, adding that the Government had already provided “55,000 documents, eight witness statements and corporate witness statements” to the inquiry.
He added: “I’m absolutely certain and confident that the Cabinet Office will be engaged in this in exactly the right kind of way, and in the kind of spirit that I’ve just outlined and making sure that we are absolutely robustly transparent where it is appropriate to be so.
“I think that’s an important qualification, so that the inquiry has all the information that it is right for it to have.”
‘Transparency and candour’
Allies of Mr Johnson have insisted that he has “no objection” to handing over the evidence; and his successor Mr Sunak said the Government was acting “in a spirit of transparency and candour”.
Ms Rayner said evidence has seemingly “gone missing”, adding: “It must be found and handed over as requested if the whiff of a cover-up is to be avoided and bereaved families are to get the answers they deserve.”
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman flatly denied the allegation of a cover-up, saying: “No. We want to learn the lessons about the actions of the state during the pandemic, we want that to be done rigorously and candidly.”
A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “We are firmly of the view that the inquiry does not have the power to request unambiguously irrelevant information that is beyond the scope of this investigation.
“This includes the WhatsApp messages of government employees which are not about work but instead are entirely personal and relate to their private lives.”