» Thursday, February 1, 2007

Police Inquiry

The Leader was asked, as the Lobby’s "conduit" to the Cabinet, whether he thought it was acceptable that the PMOS should be put in a position where, inadvertently, he effectively misled journalists for the best part of a week and, as a result, Lobby journalists misled the public. Mr Straw said that, in the special and particular circumstances in which the request had been made by the Metropolitan Police that nothing should be divulged about the interview with the Prime Minister, he was absolutely clear that it was acceptable practice. Indeed, he believed that nobody from the Prime Minister downwards had any choice but to follow that request.

The Leader told the journalists that they had to accept that there were times when there was information which, for very good reasons, could not be given to the media. He pointed out that, during his period as Foreign Secretary, he quite often had information which would emerge publicly at some stage but there were very strong reasons for not a word coming out for a period. In those circumstances, he had not spoken to officials who dealt with the media at the Foreign Office, because it would have placed them in a very difficult position until it was appropriate for an announcement to be made.

Referring to the PMOS, Mr Straw said he thought there had been complete propriety. He failed to understand how anyone could say differently.

In response to a question, the Leader said he had been made aware of the interview with the Prime Minister at the same time as the media – and it should not have been any different.

He was asked to say how the police investigation was beginning to affect the Prime Minister’s position and whether there was a feeling within Cabinet that it was time for the police to bring charges or conclude their inquiry. The Leader said he could not comment on the actual police investigation. He added that the Prime Minister was getting on with his job of being one of the most successful prime ministers in history, and was energized and focused.

The Leader, responding to a question about the formula used by the PMOS at earlier briefings, he said he had not discussed it with him. However, he wanted to pose a question: why on earth would the Prime Minister, knowing that the information would emerge at some point, agree that it should not come out for a period unless there were very good reasons?

Mr Straw said that it was due to a request by the Metropolitan Police. He said that the formula which you used at the start was the one which you had to stick with. If the PMOS had changed the formula, there would have been a difficulty.

As an observer of the relationship between the media and the Government, the Leader said there needed to be some reflection. It was not the case at all that something improper had taken place. His message to the journalists was: if any of them had been in the same position as the PMOS and the Prime Minister, they would have acted in the same way, assuming that they wished to be as proper and consistent with a police request as they had been.

Mr Straw, responding to further questions, said that the Government was getting on with its programme. The Cabinet had discussed two major items earlier today – House of Lords reform and counter terrorism – which was typical of Cabinets dealing with very substantial issues.

The Leader further said that, during his period at the Foreign Office in relation to the reasons for holding back information to himself, he had not been referring merely to intelligence but sometimes also about information which might emerge later. There had been very strong reasons for not releasing it at the time. He failed to see the distinction between that and the police request, in the present circumstances, to the Prime Minister and a very small number of officials not to divulge the information for reasons which the Metropolitan Police had. The Leader said it would have been a huge story if the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, who received such a request not to divulge the fact of or the content of an interview, had refused to give that undertaking to the police at the risk of compromising the investigation. In his view, there were only two alternatives – promise to do the proper thing and comply with the police request or not to do so.

Asked if it would not have been better for the PMOS to have been told, Mr Straw said it would not for precisely the reasons he had given. He said the PMOS could not have change the formula used, which was 100 percent accurate. Given the fact that the police had requested a news blackout, the moment the PMOS had said he could neither confirm nor deny it would have been tantamount to saying that something had changed – thereby breaking the police request.

Pressed for his view on suggested reasons for the police request, the Leader said he had nothing to say on that. He had zero information about what was in the minds of the police and he would not dream of speculating.

Asked for a view about the timing of the Prime Minister’s departure, the Leader said he had made his intentions very clear. He was getting on with the job. There was a big legislative programme and forthcoming elections. The Government was governing in the interests of the country.

Briefing took place at 15:00 | Search for related news

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