Who is Isabel Oakeshott? The controversial reporter Matt Hancock trusted with 100,000 Whatsapp messages

Political journalist at cente of storm over claims Matt Hancock rejected scientific advice to Covid test people going into care homes during the pandemic

Matt Mathers
Thursday 02 March 2023 09:49 GMT
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All the times Matt Hancock defended his Covid care home strategy

Matt Hancock is not the first politician to have reason to question having placed his trust in Isabel Oakeshott, the journalist at the centre of the Covid Whatsapp leak.

The reporter turned writer has courted controversy before, by revealing information with far reaching consequences.

In 2013 Vicky Pryce, former wife of ex-Liberal Democrat Cabinet Minister Chris Huhne, was jailed after telling Ms Oakeshott how she conspired to help him avoid a fine for a motoring offence.

She admitted telling Ms Pryce there was little chance of her being prosecuted for helping her with the story.

But she denied failing in her duty of care to Ms Pryce for publishing the story which ultimately led to her - and her former husband - being jailed.

Then, as now, Ms Oakeshott, defended her conduct on public interest grounds.

Ms Oakeshott, currently a TalkTV presenter, faced more controversy over an extraordinary claim that David Cameron “had sex with the head of a dead pig” in a student escapade.

Mr Cameron denied the allegation which appeared in a 2015 unauthorised biography of the former PM Ms Oakeshott co authored with Tory peer Lord Ashcroft.

In 2019 Britain’s ambassador in Washington Sir Kim Darroch had to resign after a cache of emails sent by him criticising Donald Trump were leaked to Ms Oakeshott.

Most recently, Ms Oakeshott was embroiled in a row over millionaire Brexit backer Arron Banks and his alleged links with the Kremlin, after acting as ghost-writer on his The Bad Boys Of Brexit book – a diary account of the unofficial leave campaign.

During the pandemic she is also said to have attended a barbecue with her reported partner and Reform UK leader Richard Tice that saw Tory MP Bob Seely apologise for failing to follow lockdown advice.

Ms Oakeshott is now at the centre of another political storm after releasing more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages that former health secretary handed her while she worked on his Pandemic Diaries memoir.

Allies of Mr Hancock have accused her of breaching a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), after the Daily Telegraph published a series of stories based on the messages.

Writing in the Telegraph, she said: “There’s no secret about how I came to be in possession of this communications treasure trove. The common thread is Matt Hancock, the former health secretary.

“Throughout the pandemic, he used the messaging service WhatsApp to communicate with colleagues practically every minute of every day. Following his resignation in June 2021, he downloaded the records from his phone and shared them with various people, including me.

“I was helping him to write his book about the crisis, and we drew heavily from the material to reconstruct his day-by-day account. Suffice to say there was plenty of important material left over.”

Ms Oakeshott is a vehement lockdown critic, as well as a Brexit backer, and spoke out against government lockdown rules during the pandemic.

“Let’s be honest - masks are political,” she said on GB News in March last year, two years on from the start of the pandemic.

Oakeshott collaborated with Hancock on his Pandemic Diaries memoir
Oakeshott collaborated with Hancock on his Pandemic Diaries memoir (Reuters)

“Unless you happen to work in a hospital or a laboratory they’re frankly nothing to do with medicine or genuine infection control,” she added. “They are completely unnecessary symbols of fear and repression.”

Ms Oakeshott was born in Westminster, London and attended St George’s School, Edinburgh and Gordonstoun School in Moray, Scotland before graduating with a degree in history from the University of Bristol.

She started her career on local and regional newspapers in Scotland, before moving to England and eventually working her way up to being the politics editor of The Sunday Times and the Daily Mail’s political editor at large - a post she held until February 2016.

It was in 2010, during her stint at the Times, that Oakeshott broke the Huhne story.

According to her website, Oakeshott left journalism to “write books but I have never stopped breaking big stories”. She has co-authored or ghost written ten political books and biographies, “all of which have attracted extensive media coverage”.

Lord Bethell, who appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to defend his former government colleague, said: “I think Isabel is a terrific journalist. She’s not a very good friend.”

And Robert Colvile, the director of the rightwing Centre for Policy Studies thinktank and co-author of the 2019 Tory manifesto, said: “The main lesson I’ve learned from this is not to hire someone who absolutely hates your signature policy as your ghostwriter.”

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