Ban ministers from text chats with businessmen, say former civil service heads

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James Dyson / Boris Johnson
James Dyson / Boris Johnson

Cabinet ministers should be banned from having unofficial conversations with newspapers and businesspeople on WhatsApp in the wake of accusations of sleaze and lobbying at the top of the Government, two former heads of the civil service have said.

Lord O'Donnell and Lord Sedwill said reform to the Cabinet manual – which sets out the rules and conventions for the Government – or the ministerial code should include provisions to stop ministers speaking to businesses or newspapers without an official record by civil servants.

Their intervention comes after texts between Boris Johnson and James Dyson were leaked to the media, sparking accusations of "cronyism" and "sleaze".

Speaking to Parliament's constitution committee, Lord O'Donnell said: "I think we do need to be thinking about how to keep pace with the way in which people operate [and] the increasing use of encrypted messaging services.

"I would always want to have pretty firm control over my prime ministers in terms of the way in which they communicated. The idea of prime ministers briefing the press directly [...] doesn't appeal to me very much.

"So I would like to think that there should be guidance somewhere about particularly the importance of when there are discussions, [they] really should be noted by civil servants. There should be records of this."

Lord Sedwill, Cabinet Secretary under Theresa May and Mr Johnson, added: "When ministers are operating in an official capacity, there must be a record of any conversations they have. The key principle – that official conversations should be on record – is one that the government manual could certainly encompass."

Mr Johnson has been criticised for communicating directly with inventor Mr Dyson about the tax implications of his supply of ventilators to the UK at the beginning of the Covid pandemic.

Journalists were also leaked WhatsApp conversations between Mr Johnson and Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, relating to the state's proposed purchase of Newcastle United Football Club.