Boris Johnson’s tax texts show perils of government by WhatsApp
The UK prime minister's twitchy thumbs are under scrutiny amid a wider debate on lobbying.
LONDON — Downing Street aides must be longing for a signal scrambler as the U.K. government tries to find out who leaked Boris Johnson’s texts about tax to billionaire inventor James Dyson to the media.
No. 10 announced the probe Thursday, but not before the messages — concerning the tax status of Dyson’s employees as he tried to help the U.K. secure ventilators for the COVID pandemic — were read back to Johnson in the House of Commons, and one senior MP accused Johnson of running a “WhatsApp government.”
It’s the latest eyebrow-raising text exchange to grip Westminster in recent weeks, and reveals the perils of twitchy ministerial thumbs for those used to a proper paper trail.
Johnson is known for his propensity to reach out via text: in scenes barely imaginable now, in 2017 he used WhatsApp to ask Tory MPs to rally behind then-Prime Minister Theresa May. Last year he made the case for his Brexit Withdrawal Agreement using the same channel. And on another occasion, Johnson urged MPs to rally around Priti Patel, his home secretary, after she was accused of bullying.
His response to Dyson — “I will fix it” — chimes with what present and former colleagues have characterized as an eagerness to please and a horror of disappointing or annoying people. An ex-adviser claimed Johnson was “always sheepish” when delivering bad news, and a serving minister said: “It is fair to say that he does try to please.”
Westminster’s other big texting story saw former Prime Minister David Cameron directly message Chancellor Rishi Sunak to lobby for access to government loan schemes for his post-government employer, the now-defunct Greensill Capital.
Cameron was similarly reachable by text until the recent Greensill scandal, when his fingers seemed to grow a little rusty as journalists waited for a statement on his increasingly-controversial lobbying. He finally admitted his “communications with government need to be done through only the most formal of channels.”
The approachability of the two men stands in contrast with May, who was always said to be — to borrow the internet jargon — extremely offline. The then-prime minister would answer (rather than initiate) texts, a former aide said, but did not favor WhatsApp and relied on calls being placed through the No. 10 switchboard.
Her remoteness was probably closer to how civil servants wish ministers would behave. One Whitehall official complained: “Often ministers just text each other rather than going through private offices for the paper trail. So you’ll get a junior minister texting the PM direct who then goes ‘cool, this sounds like a good plan’ while the rest of No. 10 is going, ‘sorry, who said that?’”
“It has very much been a government run via WhatsApp for the past two years,” they added.
Salma Shah, who was a special adviser to Sajid Javid as the U.K.’s business secretary, says it’s unrealistic to expect ministers to operate any other way.
“Nobody starts off their life in Cabinet,” she said. “If the system works, then what happens is that you’ve spent a long time doing other stuff. People who knew you before have your number and all of a sudden if they [ministers] shut down any communication, it’s not a particularly human reaction.”
She does, however, think there’s such a thing as being “too available,” and says most advisers would take sensible steps to limit access to their ministers, such as only giving out landline numbers.
There is a whole civil service infrastructure around reporting communications in place already, Shah pointed out. “Nothing that a politician does is ever private — it’s informal, but it’s not private. Most of the time what happens is that teams are briefed on those conversations and it starts a paper trail.”
One of those who experienced lobbying first-hand is Alistair Burt, who served as a minister in the Foreign Office for five years. “Texts are no different from an unsolicited mail — if you don’t want it, just bin it,” he told POLITICO. “If it was a sensible request, you’d want to know about it — but you would always pass on to officials. If you want those benefits you are going to get the odd message which may not be welcome, but they’re not difficult to deal with.”
Jill Rutter, a seasoned Whitehall-watcher at the UK in a Changing Europe think tank echoes this. But she’s concerned that this process of passing messages on to officials does not happen enough, and is not properly covered by the ministerial code, which governs how ministers in Britain are meant to behave. “They really need to treat any approach which looks like lobbying as lobbying and disclose it, and even better to formalize the way they then deal with it to make sure there can be no suggestion of doing favors,” she says.
Johnson insisted this week he had shared details of his conversation with Dyson in the proper way, just as his spokesman has repeatedly said the government follows all the existing guidance on lobbying. To inspire confidence in these statements, however, the government will need to publish long-promised updates to the register of ministers’ interests, and make good on its vow to reveal the full Johnson-Dyson exchange.
There are already eight separate inquiries into the Greensill scandal under way, and it’s hard to imagine that lobbying by text will escape fresh scrutiny — or even a change to the rules.
In the meantime, overweening civil servants and parliamentary assistants can only hope ministers will learn lessons from modern dating — and learn how to “ghost” in the face of their correspondents’ advances.