The scariest link in No 10’s chain of fibs
William Rees-Mogg:
 
Sunday Times Jan 5 2003
 
 
 
Can one trust this government to tell the truth? Probably not, if my experience last week was anything to go by.

On December 1 last year The Mail on Sunday published a report that Cherie Blair had used a convicted fraudster, Peter Foster, to help her buy two flats in Bristol. The story was denied by the Downing Street press office, a denial that most newspapers accepted.

Various e-mails were then published that proved that Foster had indeed acted as a financial adviser on the transaction. That denial was fib No 1, for which Cherie Blair gallantly took personal responsibility.

On December 2, according to the government: “Mr Foster’s solicitors (were) notified of change in the terms of his temporary admission.”

The following day the removal date was brought forward from December 18 to December 6, after a meeting involving the immigration and nationality department (IND) removal team and the chief immigration officer.

The close coincidence of the Cherie story and the acceleration of Foster’s removal aroused suspicions that he was being rushed abroad to avoid embarrassing the Blairs.

On December 10 Beverley Hughes, an undersecretary at the Home Office, issued a statement. “None of the participants in this discussion (about bringing forward Foster’s deportation date) had contact with Downing Street, ministers or ministerial staff about the case, either before or after the discussion.”

This was not true. In answer to a written question from Oliver Letwin, the Tory shadow spokesman on home affairs, Hughes admitted on December 20 that “The IND removals process team was alerted to media interest in the case by the Home Office press office.”

There had therefore been contact between Home Office staff and the IND team.

The December 10 denial had been fib No 2.

On December 30 Paul Eastham, the deputy political editor of the Daily Mail, published an article under the heading “New Foster blow to Blair’s spin doctors”.

This article pointed to the discrepancy between the December 10 and December 20 statements, the first of which affirmed that there had been no contact, while the second admitted that there had been.

Eastham commented: “There have been persistent rumours that No 10 had much more involvement in the deportation affair than has ever been admitted.”

On December 11, in a little noticed statement on The World At One, Hughes is said to have specifically denied that there had been any contact on the Foster deportation order between the press offices at Downing Street and the Home Office.

I was unaware of this denial but after reading Eastham’s story I made some inquiries of the Home Office press office.

On December 30 I asked whether “ministers, ministerial staff or Downing Street contacted the Home Office or the Home Office press office in the period December 1 to 3”.

The press office did not, I think, formally deny that proposition, but did say that the Home Office press office had acted “independently . . . to help the IND team deal with press questions”. That was not quite a fib but it was less than frank. It was intended, I am afraid, to mislead me without a formal untruth.

By January 2 I had become worried that I had not extracted a definite admission or denial from the Home Office press office of this crucial question: “Was the discussion of the story between December 1 and 3 with the Downing Street press office?” I received the reply that there had been “discussions”, and that they constituted routine “chit chat”.

The press officer who had answered my question had taken about an hour to check the facts, a caution I can understand, as her answer showed that Hughes’s denial on December 11 could not have been true.

That had been fib No 3.

This chain of connections is no mere technical issue. It would have been quite wrong for Downing Street to interfere with the process of removing Foster. Yet the coincidence of dates, and the acute embarrassment of “Cheriegate”, makes Downing Street’s interference a natural suspicion. It would only have required two steps to pass a Henry II message — “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” — from Downing Street to the Home Office and on to the removal team.

On December 10 and 11 both these links were unequivocally denied; on December 20 the second link was admitted in reply to Letwin’s written question; on January 2 the first link was admitted in reply to my press inquiry. The chain was there, whether it was improperly used or not.

People usually lie because they have something to conceal. Misleading answers about these contacts were maintained for three weeks; that suggests that there was something to hide, though of course it does not prove that anyone asked: “Why is the removal of Peter Foster taking so long?”

Of the three fibs about Foster, one has been blamed on Cherie Blair and two have been put in the mouth of Hughes. The Home Office press office deserves some credit for admitting an embarrassing truth on December 20 and a second embarrassing truth on January 2. On the other hand the Home Office distributed the December 10 statement, which we know now — but only now — to have been misleading.

I do not think that Cherie Blair or Hughes, let alone the Home Office press office, ought to take the real blame.

From the time when Tony Blair succeeded John Smith as the leader of the Labour party Alastair Campbell has been the party’s chief propagandist. He not only decides the “line to take”, he has built the Whitehall press structure into an integrated system under his political control. As the Stephen Byers debacle proved, it is not an agency of truth. He is, in effect, the minister for propaganda, without being answerable to parliament or holding ministerial office.

Campbell has also exercised extraordinary power over the careers of colleagues, giving a foreign secretary two hours in an airport lounge to choose between his lover and his wife, and getting Peter Mandelson dismissed at least once and perhaps twice.

He is either the third or even the second figure of power in the government and certainly the most feared. Nobody can prove what he said to whom in the Downing Street shadows but I have little doubt that he took all the key decisions in the Foster case.

Many experienced political journalists have lost all trust in the Campbell propaganda machine. So has Michael Martin, the tough-minded Speaker of the House, who made an extraordinarily frank attack on Radio Five Live last week. He said spin doctors were “an absolute nuisance” who should be “done away with”. The point has been reached when Campbell is an embarrassment to the government. He destroys public trust.