In his play Privacy nearly a decade ago, writer James Graham highlighted controversial claims that US and UK intelligence services were secretly subjecting their publics to mass surveillance operations.
For light relief, an actor playing foreign secretary William Hague regularly popped up to declare in a broad Yorkshire accent: “Nothing to hide? Nothing to fear!” The audience laughed, but uncomfortably.
After an extraordinary week that has seen the Government take legal action to withhold its own secrets from the Covid public inquiry, its ministers are once again facing uneasy ridicule.
On BBC1’s Question Time, science minister, George Freeman, was openly laughed at as he admitted the Cabinet Office was likely to lose its judicial challenge to Baroness Hallett’s demand to see all uncensored WhatsApps, diaries and other documents created during the pandemic.
“I absolutely have very little doubt that the courts will find that Baroness Hallett will decide what evidence she deems relevant, and then we’ll get on with it,” Freeman declared.
Although he denied the whole exercise was a cynical waste of time, here was a member of the Government effectively conceding that it was spending taxpayers’ cash on a case it wouldn’t win. No wonder the audience pointed out the money would be better spent helping them with the cost of living crisis.
While Freeman insisted that it was important to go to court to “test” the privacy protections for Whitehall, it’s also bitterly ironic that his own party’s 2019 manifesto vowed to curb the rights of judicial review for everyone else.
The manifesto promised changes to ensure the legal process was “not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays”. A Ministry of Justice consultation said it wanted to filter out “weak, frivolous and unmeritorious cases”.
Rishi Sunak often attacks “lefty lawyers” (even using that as a term of abuse to describe Keir Starmer) whom he says block the removal of migrants, but seems to be happy to see the Government’s hefty lawyers embark on a weak case that could needlessly delay the Covid inquiry.
What ought to worry the Prime Minister was the way his own reputation was openly mocked by the Question Time crowd, with many suggesting his trademark promise of “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level” was a sham.
There’s no doubt that the PM is determined to put limits on what Whitehall should hand over to the Covid inquiry. I understand that on Tuesday, when Lady Hallett holds a preliminary hearing into so-called Module 2 of her probe (covering “political decision making”), we may discover a new legal tactic attempted by the Cabinet Office to strengthen its position.
In a move that is separate from the judicial review process, the Government can apply for a Section 19 order, seeking to stop the publication of even some of the redacted documents that are being scrutinised by the inquiry team.
If the inquiry agrees to the order (and other inquiries from Hillsborough to the Post Office scandal have done so in the past), such documents cannot be shared with “core participants”, including the Covid Bereaved Families for Justice group. They would be used to “inform” the inquiry’s recommendations but wouldn’t be made public for years.
So, exactly why is Sunak so determined to take the political risk of looking like he wants to nobble an inquiry his own Government set up in the first place? To paraphrase Hague (his predecessor in his Yorkshire constituency and one of his biggest fans), if he’s got nothing to hide, he’s got nothing to fear. Or has he?
Of course, some of this may simply stem from Sunak’s own inherent Establishment-style conservatism about what the public has a right to know, combined with a genuine belief that good government functions better when civil servants and ministers can frankly discuss policy options in confidence.
But there’s also a suspicion that he’s worried about his own personal messages about Boris Johnson, other ministers, aides and medical and scientific experts. Could they tell us embarrassing things about Sunak’s stance on the second lockdown, on how much money he wanted to spend, and what he did behind closed doors?
The inquiry has this week revealed the 150 questions it wants to ask Johnson, and among them are a handful that mention Sunak. What discussions did he have with his then chancellor, about the Eat Out to Help Out (EOHO) scheme prior to its implementation in August 2020? Did he consider the potential impact on Covid infections?
Yet there will be tricky questions for Sunak too. Few people realise that HMRC chief, Jim Harra, was forced to seek a written ministerial direction to go ahead with the Eat Out To Help Out scheme because of “uncertainty around the value for money of this proposal”.
Don’t forget, the scheme cost £840m in roughly one month. This, at a time when Marcus Rashford wanted cash for free school meals for the poorest (will we find out the Chancellor’s private view of the Rashford campaign?). One LSE study later found the economic benefit of EOHO to be marginal.
In early 2021, the Government’s own scientific advisory group, Sage, cited a University of Warwick study that the subsidised meals “may have substantially worsened” infection clusters of the virus. I remember asking Sunak during one of those televised No 10 briefings if he was satisfied he had adequately considered the health risks, and he ducked the question.
There is the wider issue of Sunak’s attempt at the time to signal to Tory backbenchers – possibly with one eye on succeeding Johnson – that he was against a second lockdown in 2020. In fact, during his leadership campaign last summer, he revealed he was the minister who stopped a national lockdown to deal with Omicron in 2021.
The Covid inquiry also has questions it wants to ask about a curious private Downing Street meeting in September 2020, attended by Sunak and Johnson and some noted lockdown sceptic scientists, professor Sunetra Gupta, professor Carl Heneghan and professor Anders Tegnell. Exactly what was Sunak’s role then?
Other questions that will naturally be difficult for Sunak will also cover just why he opposed giving higher sickness pay to stop the low-paid going into work, why it took so long to get a special isolation payments system, and any messages he may have sent about extending furlough in time and scope. All could be a political minefield.
The technocrat in Sunak may harbour some resentment at Johnson for setting up this Covid inquiry in the first place two years ago, as a ruse just to get him out of another hole at the time. He may see it all as a needless distraction from his five pledges to change the UK ahead of the next election, to look forward, not back.
Yet if Sunak really is proud of everything he did and said in the pandemic, why not let the public know? He could have seized on this public inquiry to draw a clear line between his own competence and probity and the shambolic freewheeling moral vacuum of his predecessor.
But this attempt to dim Lady Hallett’s torchlight of scrutiny suggests there is something to hide. And instead of distancing himself from Johnson, he might end up roping himself even closer to the toxic Tory brand of the past few years.