Personal messages relating to the suspension of the UK Parliament sent on WhatsApp and other platforms by prominent government ministers, special advisers and senior civil servants must be made public, the House of Commons declared on Monday night.
In another parliamentary defeat for Prime Minister Boris Johnson‘s government, MPs voted by 311-302 to endorse a motion brought forward by former Attorney General Dominic Grieve.
This latest development revolves around a combination of messages thought to exist outside of official government communication channels in which senior advisers Hugh Bennett, Simon Burton, Dominic Cummings, Nikki da Costa, Tom Irven, Sir Roy Stone, Christopher James, Lee Cain and Beatrice Timpson are thought to have discussed the suspension of Parliament – as well as the planning for a “no-deal” Brexit, which had been named “Operation Yellowhammer”.
The messages are thought to provide evidence that the decision to suspend Parliament was a strategic move designed to stifle debate in the House of Commons before the October 31 Brexit deadline, and not, as publicly stated when asking Queen Elizabeth II to endorse the decision, to introduce a new domestic legislative agenda.
‘Smacked of scandal’
Grieve, now an independent MP having been booted out of the Conservative Party last week along with other Tory rebels, said officials had given him information relating to the suspension of Parliament that informed him that “they believed the handling of this matter smacked of scandal.”
“I can only say that I believe those sources to be reliable and also in my experience it is extraordinarily unusual that I should get such approaches with individuals expressing their disquiet about the handling of this matter and some of the underlying issues to which it could give rise,” he told the House of Commons.
Grieve’s motion asked for all correspondence and communications, whether formal or informal, including WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, Facebook messenger, private email accounts, text messages, iMessage and official and personal mobile phones connected to the present government since July 23 relating to Parliament’s suspension, to be handed over.
The demand came after documents released in a Scottish court showed the prime minister appeared to have approved the plan to suspend parliament on August 15 – despite subsequent official denials and the public announcement being made a full two weeks later, on August 28.
“While the vote on the Grieve motion was closer than last week’s government defeats, the so-called ‘Rebel Alliance’ is largely standing firm and now leads the government 5-0 in terms of inflicting losses on Johnson,” Mark Shanahan, head of the politics department at the University of Reading, told Al Jazeera.
“It remains to be seen if the government will lodge the Yellowhammer communications as instructed in law by 11pm on Wednesday. If they do, they essentially admit they lied to the Queen. If not, they’re breaking the law. The corner Boris Johnson and team have painted themselves into gets smaller by the day – it’s bounded by particularly unforgiving rocks and hard places.”
Cabinet minister Michael Gove had argued for the government that advice from civil servants to politicians must remain secret, while Downing Street was reportedly privately briefing lobby journalists that the government would not comply with the ruling.
“We are disappointed that this Humble Address has passed,” read a government statement. “The government is committed to sharing appropriate information with Parliament, but we must balance this obligation with the broader public interest, our legal duties and the assurance that ministers can receive full and frank advice that will remain confidential.
“The scope of the information requested in the Humble Address is disproportionate and unprecedented. We will consider the implications of this vote and respond in due course.”
The rule book has been well and truly ripped up. And with it, democracy and decency. Shredded by a cult of Brexit fanboys in Number 10.
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox argued what right the government had to demand its employees “give up private email accounts and personal mobiles”.
Grieve replied: “These are government employees and in the course of their work it is their duty to observe the Civil Service code and to comply with its requirements including, I would respectfully suggest to my right honourable friend the attorney general, not using private means of communication to carry out official business.”
In a separate incident at the end of August, Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief strategist named in the motion, reportedly demanded a senior aide in the Treasury office hand over her phone after she was accused of having contact with people close to former chancellor Philip Hammond, one of the leading figures attempting to prevent a “no-deal” Brexit. The woman was subsequently fired and marched out of Number 10 Downing Street by a police officer.
Following the vote to have these messages published, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn introduced a motion demanding that the government abide by the rule of law.
Last week’s legislation which mandated Boris Johnson to request from the EU an extension to the October 31 Brexit deadline became law on Monday when it received royal assent from the queen.
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said: “The prime minister says he would rather die in a ditch than write to seek an extension to protect our economy from falling off the cliff edge.
“If that is the course that he chooses, then the prime minister must resign. Undermining democracy at every turn, the prime minister simply cannot be trusted.
“The rule book has been well and truly ripped up. And with it, democracy and decency. Shredded by a cult of Brexit fanboys in Number 10. Unfit to govern, unwilling to govern. What a despicable state of affairs.”
Plaid Cymru Westminster leader Liz Saville Roberts referenced a Spectator front-page story in 2004 “at which time the present prime minister was the editor” which noted impeachment remained part of parliamentary law in “desperate times”.
She asked Parliament: “Are these not desperate times?”