Image source, PA Media
Boris Johnson has been warned public funding for his legal representation to the Covid inquiry could be withdrawn if he tries to “undermine” the government.
Extracts of a Cabinet Office letter published in the Sunday Times tells the former PM to submit witness statements to officials for potential redactions.
It comes as the Cabinet Office fights the inquiry’s demand to see unredacted messages from Mr Johnson and officials.
Mr Johnson has said he would give the material to the inquiry directly.
The Cabinet Office confirmed the letter to Mr Johnson had been sent last week. But it is understood it was not issued in response to any recent event and a government source said it had not been seen by ministers.
In the letter, the Cabinet Office said: “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 funding would only be available if Mr Johnson complied with certain conditions.
These included having to send any witness statement or exhibit which he intended to provide to the inquiry to the Cabinet Office to be security checked, and not submitting evidence until he had “applied any redactions” which the Cabinet Office had informed him were “needed before submission”.
Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick said the government would hand over “absolutely anything that is related to Covid or the purpose of the inquiry”.
He told the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme this was “the right thing to do” – and that the governmenthad already provided more than 55,000 documents.
But he added: “There’s no precedence as far as I can see to hand over things that have got absolutely nothing to do with Covid, such as things to do with civil servants’ private lives.”
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said the letter to Mr Johnson in “no way” prevented him from providing the inquiry with “whatever evidence he wants to”.
The spokesperson said it was a letter from officials which was “intended to protect public funds” and “simply reiterates that taxpayer-funded lawyers must be used to aid the Covid inquiry and for no other purpose”.
The Cabinet Office said it made clear Mr Johnson had “a duty to provide sincere witness to the inquiry independently and without reference to the views of the current government”.
The legal challenge to the inquiry’s demand for Mr Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and documents from during the pandemic was launched this week.
The Cabinet Office refused to disclose some of the material by arguing it was not relevant to the inquiry, it would compromise ministers’ right to privacy, and would set a precedent that could prevent ministers discussing policy matters in future.
Despite this, Mr Johnson said he would be more than happy to give the material dating back to May 2021 to the inquiry.