Boris Johnson sent security experts to the homes of Cabinet Ministers to examine their personal mobile phones as part of a major leak inquiry.
Senior figures, including Matt Hancock and Michael Gove, were told to surrender their phones as No10 hunted for the mole whose secret briefings forced the Prime Minister to make an early announcement of the new lockdown.
In the bid to unmask the ‘chatty rat’, as Government sources have dubbed in the Cabinet.
The Ministers’ personal messages were examined under the investigation, ordered by a furious Mr Johnson after he was rushed into announcing the English lockdown at a hastily convened press conference last Saturday.
Boris Johnson sent security experts to the homes of Cabinet Ministers to examine their personal mobile phones as part of a major leak inquiry
Hawks believe that pro-lockdown ‘doves’ leaked details of the so-called ‘quad’ meeting of Johnson, Sunak, Gove and Hancock the previous day to stop the Prime Minister from watering down the shutdown plans.
It also led to the rushed presentation of dubious predictions, with the projection of up to 4,000 Covid deaths a day by Christmas comprehensively discredited in the days after it was revealed to millions of television viewers.
Last night, Health Secretary Mr Hancock categorically denied any involvement in the leak, but declined to comment on the investigation.
Mr Gove’s allies said the Cabinet Office Minister and his advisers were happy to hand over their phones because they had ‘nothing to hide’. Anti-lockdown Tory rebels, led by former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, called for the mole to apologise personally to the Commons if caught.
The astonishing development came as:
- Some of the Tory rebels talked privately about sending letters to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, to try to trigger a leadership contest if Mr Johnson extends the lockdown beyond the promised end date of December 2;
- The coronavirus death toll rose by 413, the highest Saturday increase since May;
- The number of new infections was 24,957 – a rise of just 3,045 on last Saturday’s total.
- Top scientists suggested that the second wave had peaked;
- Ministers plan to supply Vitamin D tablets to more than two million vulnerable people – including care home residents and those whose medical conditions mean they have to shield – over the winter amid growing evidence that it can make Covid symptoms less severe;
- The NHS stepped up preparations to roll out the Covid vaccine by early December, with one in five GP surgeries tasked with administering it;
- Britain imposed a ban on non-UK citizens coming in from Denmark amid concerns over a new coronavirus strain that has spread there from mink to humans, infecting 12 people and leading to a cull of 17million animals.
Investigators into the lockdown leak called at Mr Gove’s West London home and demanded to see his mobile phone, before examining his calls, text messages and WhatsApp conversations.
Mr Hancock is understood to have been subjected to a similar interrogation after a furious Mr Johnson ordered Cabinet Secretary Simon Case to set up the probe.
Lockdown hawks say that Mr Johnson had intended to spend last weekend studying the most recent and accurate data – and discussing it with the rest of the Cabinet – before deciding whether to extend his system of tiered, regional restrictions instead.
Supporters of the lockdown dispute this, and insist that the ‘rat’ merely accelerated the announcement of an inevitable decision.
Senior Minister Michael Gove (left) and Health Secretary Matt Hancock were both quizzed forensically by Government security specialist
Mr Johnson sent a WhatsApp message to Tory MPs after the leak to say: ‘Folks – so sorry that you’ve had to hear about all this from the newspapers.’
Meanwhile, a source told The Mail on Sunday last week: ‘Our rat, whoever it is, seems to be very chatty at the moment.’ Last Saturday evening, as the investigators swung into action, Mr Hancock phoned Mr Sunak to deny being the source of the leak – and to ask Mr Sunak if he was making that accusation. Mr Sunak denied that he was doing so.
One of Mr Gove’s allies said last night: ‘Gove and members of his staff have co-operated fully with the inquiry and were happy to submit their phones for examination, given that they have nothing to hide’. Mr Gove denied being the rat when he was interviewed last week.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith blamed the leaker for ‘bouncing’ Mr Johnson into the decision, saying: ‘What happened just over a week ago was an outrageous contempt of the Commons and the British people on an issue of the utmost importance to the country.
‘If it turns out to be a Minister, they should of course be forced to apologise to the Commons and then be sacked.
‘But if it’s an official, they should be made to come to the bar of the House and face the anger of MPs and most of all of the Speaker.
‘What they did was appalling because they bounced the Government into taking their action’.
Operation Chatty Rat catcher: GLEN OWEN reveals the inside story of the hunt to find the leaker who bounced Boris Johnson into lockdown
The men in dark suits rapped on the doors of the Cabinet ‘doves’ as the nation settled down to watch Strictly Come Dancing last Saturday evening.
The celebrity dance show was running late because Downing Street had crashed a press conference by Boris Johnson into the prime-time schedules – a rushed and chaotic response to a leak in that morning’s newspapers.
Standing at the door of senior Minister Michael Gove’s West London home was a Government security specialist, who entered the house and demanded to see his mobile phone, before examining his calls, text messages and WhatsApp conversations.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock was also quizzed forensically by investigators about his activities over the previous 24 hours, as were his aides. The officials were acting on the orders of the Cabinet Office, after a furious Mr Johnson ordered Cabinet Secretary Simon Case to find the mole described by a senior source as a ‘chatty rat’ at the heart of Government.
Downing Street was forced crash a press conference by Boris Johnson (pictured) into the prime-time schedules – a rushed and chaotic response to a leak in that morning’s newspapers
The ‘rat’ told Saturday morning’s newspapers that the previous day’s meeting of the all-powerful Covid Quad committee had decided to introduce a second national lockdown within days: anti-lockdown hawks in the Government claim that Mr Johnson had intended to spend the weekend studying the most recent and accurate data – and discussing it with the rest of the Cabinet – before deciding whether to extend his regional system of tiered restrictions instead.
They say that whoever was behind the leak had compelled the Prime Minister to rush into another economically ruinous lockdown, based on now-discredited predictions of up to 4,000 Covid deaths a day by Christmas. Pro-lockdown doves in the Cabinet dispute this, saying that the leak merely accelerated a decision that was inevitable.
Mr Johnson’s anger over the leak was compounded by the fact that the ‘dodgy dossier’ containing the flawed statistics, which was broadcast to the nation on a PowerPoint presentation, was riddled with those errors because the rat had forced it to be presented in a rush two days earlier than planned.
Suspicion inevitably fell on the ‘doves’ in the Quad – Mr Hancock and Cabinet Office Minister Mr Gove – who had been pushing for a new shutdown against the opposition of Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
Mr Johnson, who makes up the fourth member of the Quad, messaged Tory MPs after the leak to say: ‘Folks – so sorry that you’ve had to hear about all this from the newspapers today’; and a source then told The Mail on Sunday: ‘Our rat, whoever it is, seems to be very chatty at the moment.’
Standing at the door of senior Minister Michael Gove’s (pictured) West London home was a Government security specialist, who entered the house and demanded to see his mobile phone, before examining his calls, text messages and WhatsApp conversations
Mr Hancock fought back angrily against subsequent Government finger-pointing, telling No10 that he had been unfairly blamed for the leak and he wanted the inquiry to ‘take the phones off everyone in the room – up to Cabinet level’ to exonerate him.
As the infighting deepened on the evening of Mr Gove’s house call, Mr Hancock phoned Mr Sunak to deny being the source and to ask if he was accusing him: Mr Sunak said that he was not. Mr Sunak had been interviewed earlier in the day by the investigators – but not asked to hand over his phone.
A source close to the Chancellor said last night that it was because the investigators could examine the contents of phones only if they had ‘reasonable grounds to suspect’ a security breach: Mr Sunak has been as angered by the effects of the leak as Mr Johnson.
Sources say that Mr Hancock had also been visited at his home under ‘Operation Chatty Ratcatcher’ and told to surrender his phone, although a spokesman for him declined to comment last night.
A source close to one member of the Quad said: ‘Whenever there is a leak inquiry, the prime suspect is the person who has most to gain. In this case that person is Matt Hancock.’
As the infighting deepened on the evening of Mr Gove’s house call, Health Secretary Matt Hancock (left) phoned Chancellor Rishi Sunak (right) to deny being the source and to ask if he was accusing him
But a Government adviser said: ‘The initial suspicion fell on Hancock but he has been so furious in his denials, and keen for the investigators to examine his phone, that the people around Gove are now the focus of the investigation. When Michael was Education Secretary, Dominic Cummings [the Government adviser and a long-standing ally of Gove] used to do stuff like this all the time on his behalf, if not with his knowledge.’
In response, one of Mr Gove’s allies said last night: ‘Michael and members of his staff have co-operated fully with the inquiry and were happy to submit their phones for examination given they have nothing to hide.’ Mr Gove strenuously denied being the rat when he was interviewed last week.
The investigators have also been carrying out ‘long and difficult’ interviews with other officials and advisers at the meeting in addition to those special advisers working for the Quad Ministers who were not in attendance.
Sir Simon Stevens, the doveish head of the NHS, was present at an earlier meeting between the Quad and scientific experts but is not being investigated, NHS sources say.
The investigation is understood to be ‘very serious’ and ‘not just one of those “show us your texts” jobs’, according to sources, with Ministers and advisers now ‘terrified of saying anything to anyone’.
If the rat is identified, No10 expects them to have ‘no option but to resign’. The sequence of events has also angered the swelling ranks of lockdown opponents on the Tory backbenches, led by former leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith.
They blame the leaker for forcing Mr Johnson into a politically embarrassing U-turn from his view, just three weeks ago, that a full lockdown would ‘shatter our lives and our society’.
It is understood that Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle would call for the culprit, if identified, to apologise at the Bar of the Commons, a punishment which has not been meted out for more than 60 years.
Sir Lindsay said Mr Johnson had gone to ‘great lengths to reassure me that the leaks were not from Downing Street’ and remind the PM to keep the Commons ‘updated on his leak inquiry’; he wants the guilty party – if it turns out to be a Government adviser, not a fellow MP or Minister – to be ‘called to the Bar of the House’ for contempt of Parliament. The humiliating sanction was last used in 1957 when the then Daily Express editor
Sir John Junor dared to allege some MPs were abusing parliamentary petrol rations. Sir Iain told The Mail on Sunday: ‘What happened just over a week ago was an outrageous contempt of the Commons and the British people on an issue of the utmost importance to the country.
‘If it turns out to be a Minister, they should of course be forced to apologise to the Commons and then be sacked. ‘But if it’s an official, they should be made to come to the bar of the House and face the anger of MPs and most of all of the Speaker.’
In the Commons last week, Mr Hancock nodded his agreement as Sir Iain said that whoever was responsible for the ‘appalling’ leak ‘should be sacked, strung up to dry, made to come here to apologise and grovel out the door on their hands and knees, and beaten on the way out’.
DAVID MELLOR: They’re sending us to hell in a handcart on the back of a dossier so dodgy even Tony Blair wouldn’t have touched it
Surely now is the time for Boris Johnson to offer the courage of his hero Winston Churchill.
We need it more than ever. Yet last week he became the reincarnation of LedruRollin, the French revolutionary, who, as the mob rampaged through Paris in 1848, declared: ‘I must follow them, for I am their leader!’
What else can we make of his decision to hide beneath the mess of unreliable and inaccurate data from Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, and his Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty?
After some pretence of sticking up for his Chancellor Rishi Sunak, the one resolute figure this Government has yet produced, Johnson then followed his Brexit supremo Michael Gove, and his Health Secretary Matt Hancock, in swallowing everything Vallance and Whitty served up.
There seems no statistic so obviously exaggerated, no invitation to lock the country down too economically disastrous, no appeal to save the NHS too ridiculous for Gove and Hancock to swallow hook line and sinker.
DAVID MELLOR: Surely now is the time for Boris Johnson to offer the courage of his hero Winston Churchill
You’d think that Boris would have learnt his lesson about Gove, who did for him in his first run to be PM. He should perhaps recall the wise words of David Niven about Errol Flynn: ‘You always knew where you were with Errol. He’d always let you down.’
Hancock and Gove are a sad example of what Margaret Thatcher especially deplored in her Ministers: ‘agency capture’, being taken over by the entity you were sent to reform. But it seems this unlikely duo nevertheless persuaded Boris to abandon Sunak, and throw his support behind a lockdown.
The comparison with Thatcher is telling. As a junior Health Minister, I worked on the 1980s Aids pandemic. Another coronavirus, as it happens, HIV was a horrific development, a death sentence for most who caught it in the early stages. There was every reason for serious concern and individual caution.
Yet Norman Fowler, the then Health Secretary, did not wheel out grim-faced scientists and medical officers to terrify the public with charts and graphs. He did not allow the equivalents of Professors Gloom and Doom to dictate Government policy.
And we Ministers most certainly did not hide behind their skirts while claiming to be ‘led by the science’. Instead, we listened carefully to the advice the experts gave us behind closed doors – and then told the public what they needed to know and how to change their behaviour in order to keep themselves safe. It worked.
Despite her powerful convictions and strong views, Thatcher surrounded herself with considerable politicians who were capable of giving her courageous advice. I am talking about the calibre of such people as Willie Whitelaw, Nigel Lawson, Kenneth Clarke, Leon Brittan and Lord Carrington. These were not only men of high intelligence, but characters willing to brave her anger and argue back.
DAVID MELLOR: There seems no statistic so obviously exaggerated, no invitation to lock the country down too economically disastrous, no appeal to save the NHS too ridiculous for Gove (left) and Hancock (right) to swallow hook line and sinker
I cannot say the same of Boris, whose Cabinet seems utterly feeble by comparison. At times, it seems the Government itself has been reduced to the single Rasputin-like figure of his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings. It was not only at Westminster that Thatcher was well-advised, of course.
Still more essential was the support of her husband Denis at home, a source of emotional support and shrewd guidance. It is hard to imagine the arbitrary shutdown of bars, rugby clubs and golf courses were Denis still in Downing Street. What sort of help or advice, I wonder, does Boris get at home? To me, he cuts a lonely, isolated figure and one who, increasingly, seems to have little appetite for the momentous job in hand. It’s perfectly obvious to all but the wilfully blind that this appalling lockdown decision was made using flawed data.
At the PM’s much-delayed press conference last weekend, Whitty and Vallance insisted that – in the worst case – a terrifying 4,000 a day could soon be dying of Covid-19 unless we were locked in our homes. That bogus, exaggerated statistic fell apart within a matter of hours. The main estimate offered by Whitty and Vallance of 1,500 deaths a day was soon exposed as too high by at least 30 per cent.
Boris should have known that the methodology was all wrong well before his lockdown decision was announced on Monday because that very same data had predicted 1,000 deaths the previous day. In fact there were only 200. Why look in the crystal ball when you can read the book? The evidence to stop this catastrophe was all there but Boris was too lazy to turn the pages.
Professor Carl Heneghan of Oxford University and his team, beacons of common sense in the encircling gloom of risible rubbish, said this of the Government’s lamentable decision: ‘Continually they have overestimated the numbers that are going to die, mis-categorised Covid19 deaths, and exaggerated the impact on hospitals.’
Just so. Heneghan condemned their insistence on rushing out worstcase scenarios, irrespective of accuracy. Which is exactly what happened last weekend and why we are in the mess we’re in now. If this is so obvious to Heneghan, why isn’t it obvious to Boris, with all the access to information he has at No10?
The data in the latest dodgy dossier is so spurious that even Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell at their most cynical would not have embraced it. It is hardly reassuring to know that the British economy is going to hell in a handcart on the basis of such exaggerated nonsense.
And yet Johnson, Gove and Hancock wolfed it down like starving animals. It’s getting to the point in this pandemic where none of us can readily believe a word they say. When I was Chief Secretary 30 years ago, the National Debt was 20 per cent of our annual GDP.
Now it’s more than 100 per cent, and will rise sharply in the coming weeks as a result of the extension of the furlough scheme till next March, and other excessive spending decisions. I look at my two-year-old granddaughter playing happily and I think, with near certainty, that she’ll be paying for all this for the whole of her adult life.
And so, maybe, will her own children and grandchildren. When Boris was a kid, he apparently said he wanted to be ‘world king’. He’s got a lot nearer to that than most of us expected.
So why doesn’t he try a bit of hard work to ensure that the decisions he takes are sensible and will enhance his reputation and the country’s prosperity, instead of misusing his exceptional ability simply to disguise with verbal flourishes how little real effort he actually puts in?
The greatest violinist of the 20th Century, Jascha Heifetz, was so gifted that he could have skated through every concert he gave without preparation.
But in fact, he practised incessantly. He said: ‘If I don’t practise for three days, the public notices. If I don’t practise for two days, the critics notice.’ And then, the cruncher: ‘If I don’t practise for a single day, I notice.’
For Heifetz it was a matter of pride to be the best he possibly could be. So why doesn’t Boris take pride in being able to see through these Covid charlatans, and set a clear course for the country, and then stand by it, as Churchill would have done?