Welcome to Friday’s Early Edition from i.
As the month of April neared its end in 2021, the celebrity gossip newsletter Popbitch asked a little question. “It’s not as though the Prime Minister’s personal phone number could just be floating out there on the internet, is it? It would be absolutely insane if it was tacked on to the bottom of an old press release that he dished out freely while MP for Henley, and Shadow Minister for Higher Education.” That revelation led to a huge row and vigorous questioning over whether Boris Johnson – PM at the time – had been incredibly lax with the security, and general use of his phone. At the time, Labour said the incident had implications for security, lobbying and the risk of blackmail. Rishi Sunak, who was Chancellor, insisted “all security protocols have been followed” and defended Johnson, saying that what made him “special” was that he was “incredibly approachable”. Now this extraordinary row over Boris Johnson’s phone has raised its ugly head again. That is because it has become a reason for the former PM to avoid handing over the WhatsApp messages on it dating from before that time – including the crucial months from Feb 2020 – to the Covid inquiry. We’ll take a little trip down memory lane to look back at what happened at the time, and what it means now. That’s after the news.
Today’s news, and why it matters
A pleasure boat that sailed close to Bournemouth pier is being probed by police investigating the deaths of a boy, 17 and girl, 12. Officers have placed Dorset Belle under guard in Poole Harbour, as the investigation continues into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the youngsters. A police source told i: “This vessel is under a police cordon.”
As the Conservative Party considers the timing of a general election, some of its own MPs are questioning whether much of the legislation the government is attempting to push through Parliament will make it onto the statue book before the nation goes to the polls next year. Senior Conservative predicts ministers will blame Labour, the Lords, and the civil service ‘blob’ if they run out of time to get key policies through Parliament. From renters’ rights to ‘stop the boats’ – these are the 28 promises Tories fear are stuck in a logjam.
Children in Britain are facing a greater risk of exploitation over the school summer holidays as families struggling with the cost of living crisis cannot afford activities, leaving youngsters vulnerable to being targeted by predators, alarming new figures reveal. Young people are expected to spend more time without adult supervision both online and out in the community over the summer.
Phillip Schofield has said he is “utterly broken and ashamed” over the affair he had with a younger male colleague – but he denies grooming the man. He resigned from ITV last week and was dropped by his talent agency YMU after admitting to an “unwise but not illegal” affair with a younger male colleague.
Almost 35,000 more patients a month are waiting longer than two weeks for a cancer hospital appointment since the Conservatives came to power, according to Labour. Compared to when they were last in government in 2010, Labour said that close to 420,000 extra people this year will wait more than two weeks for a follow-up. The longer waits cannot be blamed on Covid pandemic backlogs, the party said.
Boris Johnson and the missing messages:
What happened at the time? Boris Johnson’s use of his mobile phone had already been in the spotlight after text message exchanges with Sir James Dyson and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman were leaked in 2021. In the ones involving Sir James, the entrepreneur had raised concerns with the PM that if he relocated staff from Singapore to the UK to work on a project for much-needed ventilators, they could be hit with extra tax. Mr Johnson had replied: “I will fix it tomo! We need you. It looks fantastic.” At the time, critics had raised questions about lobbyists and others from the business personally messaging the Prime Minister in a bid to get him to intervene in issues as part of wider debates around sleaze and cronyism. As Chloe Chaplain wrote at the time: “Crisis or no crisis, however, it is not a good look for the most senior man in Government to be essentially promising tax breaks to huge corporations over text message.” And pertinently: “No 10 will now face even more questions as to how the Government was being run at the height of the pandemic.” But the row escalated further after the Popbitch reveal. The UK’s former national security adviser Lord Ricketts warned at the time Mr Johnson could have put himself at an “increased risk” of snooping and criminal activity, and said “thousands” of people could have his details, possibly placing him at risk of hostile state action. At the time, Sir Keir Starmer said: “What has come out … is [about] privileged access – those who can WhatsApp the prime minister for favours – and this all is further evidence that there is one rule for them and another rule for everybody else.” But Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins said Mr Johnson “more than anyone, knows his responsibilities when it comes to national security”. And Simon Case told MPs that officials “put security packages around all the communications that ministers have,” adding: “The level of encryption and standards of security on everybody’s mobile phone increasing all the time.”
Why does it matter now? The Covid inquiry, chaired by Lady Hallett, has requested WhatsApps from Mr Johnson from January 2020 onwards, hoping they will give insight into how he and his government responded to the virus. The request, which also included messages from a number of other senior figures and officials, has caused a standoff between the Cabinet Office and the inquiry. That has now resulted in a judicial review of Lady Hallett’s order, after the government decided to launch legal action over it. Despite the Cabinet Office’s position, Boris Johnson offered the full unredacted WhatsApp messages – but only from after May 2021. i understands this is because Mr Johnson was told by security officials to turn off the device and never turn it on again in case it could be hacked by hostile actors. The former PM is still in possession of the device. It is said he has no objection to handing over the content on the phone to the inquiry, providing security officials and technical support can be offered by the Cabinet Office to ensure the messages can be retrieved without compromising security. Read the full story here.
The remaining questions: Firstly, the judicial review and row over the messages won’t stop the Covid inquiry from starting as planned on 13 June. A letter from the Cabinet Office’s solicitor, Parm Sahota, says: “We look forward to the commencement of the Module 1 hearings which begin on Tuesday 13 June and at which Cabinet Office witnesses are ready to give evidence.” For people who want to see justice, such as Dania Al-Obeid, who received a criminal record for breaching Covid regulations after attending the Sarah Everard vigil, the latest saga raises big questions over trust in the government. “One thing people kept saying and now I completely agree is one rule for them and another for us and that’s completely how it feels here. This kind of just proves the contrast. It’s heartbreaking. And I don’t want that, I don’t want it to be this massive gap. I don’t want to not trust people in government. It’s a punch in the face.” Read her full story here. For some others, the row sheds a spotlight on how technology – coupled with remote working during the pandemic – has blurred the public and personal in professional circumstances. “The law governing public records has not kept up with new technology,” Henry Hill, the deputy dditor of Conservative Home told Newsnight. But it raises other questions too. As ITV’s Robert Peston asked: “Has [the phone] really not been examined by Johnson, or his lawyers, or the Cabinet Office, or the security services since then? Did Sue Gray not ask to see it? What about the Privileges Committee? Did no one till today remember that it contains so much precious data?” Mr Johnson aparrently has no objection to handing over the content on the phone to the inquiry, providing security officials and technical support can be offered by the Cabinet Office to ensure the messages can be retrieved without compromising security. Will that happen?
Around the world
President Joe Biden tripped and fell after handing out the last diploma at a graduation ceremony at the US air force academy on Thursday – but got up quickly and walked back to his seat. After Mr Biden was back on his feet, he pointed behind him, seeming to indicate what he tripped over – a sandbag. He walked back to his seat behind the podium unassisted, mingling with other officials, smiling and giving a “thumbs up” sign.
Australia’s most decorated soldier losing a multi-million dollar defamation case against three newspapers who accused him of war crimes paves the way for greater “urgency” in pursuing others, say experts. “I think the result may be more people coming forward in Australia and probably in the UK,” one said.
Police seized a “number of items” during the search of a reservoir in Portuguese while investigating the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. “A number of items were seized as part of the operation. These will be evaluated in the coming days and weeks,” authorities said.
A US military drone controlled by artificial intelligence killed its operator during a simulated test to stop it from interfering, an official has revealed. The AI used “highly unexpected strategies” to achieve its mission in the test. “The system started realising that while they did identify the threat, at times the human operator would tell it not to kill that threat, but it got its points by killing that threat. So what did it do? It killed the operator,” said Col Tucker Hamilton.
A cleric has become an unlikely figurehead for animal rights after he opened a dog refuge in Iran. Sayed Mahdi Tabatabaei, a Shia Muslim, rescues stray dogs and posts about his activities to his 800,000 Instagram followers. “My videos seem to leave a good impression on people,” he said. “They say they feel a wave of kindness, peace, and friendship coming through those videos.”
Watch out for…
more rail disruption as strikes continue today.
Thoughts for the day
We have a vaping epidemic in our schools among children as young as 11 – I see it everyday. The children are like bees to a honeypot, attracted by shiny, glamorous vapes in the windows and sugary flavours that appeal to juvenile taste buds, a teacher writes.
By stepping away from mental health care, the Met Police has made a case for its own defunding. With every realisation that they aren’t equipped to deal with every social problem under the sun, the case for re-allocating funds grows stronger, argues Kuba Shand-Baptiste.
Harry and Meghan may have declared a truce – but Prince William won’t forgive them anytime soon. Their brand is their connection to royalty and it’s hard to see how they will avoid capitalising further on this, says Jennie Bond.
‘Be yourself… but don’t be a dick’: How queer spaces at festivals went mainstream. Gary Grimes explores the blossoming of queer spaces and the challenges that come with inviting straight people in.
The Big Read
Inside the Tory war on woke: ‘I’d rather children be taught maths than 72 genders’. The Government has appointed Arif Ahmed its first ever free speech tsar, with culture wars expected to be a key Conservative strategy in the run-up to the next general election, Poppy Wood reports.
Super League Magic Weekend: How father-and-son duo Adrian and Lachlan Lam are leading Leigh Leopards’ charge. Father-son combinations are a unique breed in professional sport but this one has Leigh fans dreaming big, writes John Davidson.
Something to brighten your day
Airfares have risen significantly recently, but there are ways to still find affordable holidays. Here’s the best tips for booking a cost-effective summer holiday.