At the start of a Tory leadership debate organized by the Sun Last July, Rishi Sunak he made a series of statements that, 10 months later, ring equally hollow.
Facing Liz Truss, the eventual winner of the pageant, Sunak struggled to acknowledge that Sun readers were struggling with the cost of living. But he also wanted to temper his concern for them with optimism about Britain’s prospects.
He noted that there were “incredible opportunities, especially because of Brexit”, adding that “like many of you, I was proud to vote for it.” He promised, if he becomes prime minister, to “control inflation”, “cut EU red tape”, “lower taxes” and “do whatever it takes to tackle illegal immigration”.
However, after the events of the last few days, it was the prime minister’s attempt on that occasion to present himself as a hero of the pandemic that may pose the greatest danger to his reputation. “As chancellor,” he boasted, “you saw me successfully help 10 million people protect their jobs and the economy from Covid, so I have a track record you can believe in.”
Last Thursday, the government took the extraordinary step of announcing that it was seeking a judicial review to prevent the independent judge-led inquiry into its handling of Covid, which it had established, from seizing the former prime minister’s uncensored WhatsApp messages. Boris Johnson and diaries
The Cabinet Office said there was a significant privacy “principle” at stake and argued that much of the material was completely irrelevant, while insisting it was doing everything it could to help Lady Hallett in her endeavours.
The saga, though often tedious, has huge political ramifications that will be felt before and after the next general election. And one question, above all, needs to be answered.
It is this: if the Hallett inquiry requests have so far concerned only Johnson’s messages and scribbles, what exactly is it that both the Cabinet Office and the current prime minister (who is not Johnson’s friend)?
One answer may be that Johnson’s WhatsApp includes embarrassing and revealing messages involving Sunak and other ministers still serving in the government.
But the real reason may well have more to do with what could be contained in thousands of messages about Sunak’s broader role as finance minister during Covid, which many eminent people in science and medicine believe is far more open to challenge. and criticisms that he or his inner circle want to admit. What the government fears is that a precedent has been set: if Johnson’s messages are delivered, Sunak’s will also have to be delivered.
It is true that the Treasury under Sunak’s leadership conceived and ran the licensing scheme, saving many jobs and businesses. But he also ran and promoted the widely criticized (by scientists and doctors) Eat Out to Help Out scheme which is believed to have led to a jump in Covid cases. He also resisted views from scientists and the medical establishment calling for a “circuit breaker” lockdown in the fall of 2020. Scientists at the time saw Treasury concerned almost exclusively with economic arguments over Covid, and very little with the implications of their policies for the spread of the Covid virus.
A 2021 report by the House of Commons health and social care and science and technology committees jointly chaired at the time by Jeremy Hunt, now Chancellor for Sunak, made it clear that the decision by Number 10 and the Treasury resisting a circuit breaker had been wrong: “In this decision not to have a circuit breaker, the UK government did not follow official scientific advice. Ministers were clearly overly optimistic in assuming that the worst was over during the summer months of 2020.” Sunak was quite open about his opposition to involving scientists too much during Covid. In 2022 he told the Viewer:: “We shouldn’t have empowered scientists the way we did.”
In the 2022 medical journal the bmj wore an item saying that “Rishi Sunak’s actions during the Covid-19 pandemic tell us a lot about his attitudes towards healthcare and science and therefore how they may fare under his tenure as UK Prime Minister”. The piece is very critical of his approach.
As he prepares to open his investigation, there are already hints that Hallett is on Sunak’s case, as well as Johnson’s. Hallett has asked Johnson 150 questions about his and his government’s role in the pandemic. It is likely that he has sent, or is about to send, a similar list to Sunak.
Both the current and former PM will give personal testimony at the investigation. Several of Hallett’s questions to Johnson show a clear line of thought. She asks: “What conversations did she have with the then Chancellor about the Eat Out to Help Out scheme before its implementation in August 2020? Did you support the introduction of the Eat Out to Help out scheme at that time? Did he consider at the time the potential impact of the scheme on the number of Covid-19 infections? Did he find out if Treasury had sought or received scientific advice regarding its Eat Out to Help Out scheme prior to its implementation? If not, did you advise the then Chancellor or Treasury that such scientific advice should be sought? If not, why not?”
When Sunak announced the discount scheme as a way to revive business in restaurants, cafes and pubs, he made sure to be the public face of it. He was photographed serving customers at a Wagamama restaurant at the launch in August 2020. But research from the University of Warwick, which the bmj says ‘consistent with Public Health England data’, suggests it caused a marked increase in Covid cases.
There seems to have been little government consultation on Eat Out to Help Out prior to its launch. in his book Johnson at 10: The Inside Story Anthony Seldon says then-Secretary of Health Matt Hancock first knew when he read a press release.
Hancock later wrote to Cabinet Secretary Simon Case expressing concern about the damage it was causing: “I just want to let you know straight up that we have had a lot of feedback that Eat Out to Help Out is causing problems in our target areas. . I’ve kept it out of the news, but it’s serious. So please, let’s not let the financial success of the scheme lead to its extension.”
Sunak has liked to portray himself as a Covid hero. The reason he may be so reluctant to hand over Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages to Hallett is that he fears it will allow him to come to a completely different conclusion.