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MPs in threat to disrupt State opening of Parliament

30 November 2008 25 Comments

The signal for a week of unrest in Westminster came after the Leader of the House of Commons, Harriet Harman, said that she was “very concerned indeed” at the threat to “fundamental principles” posed by the affair.

She called on Michael Martin, the Speaker, to order a formal inquiry into the decision to allow a police search of Mr Green’s Parliamentary office. Mr Martin was under pressure from MPs on all sides to issue an apology after personally allowing the police access to the Commons.

Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, faced further criticism for refusing to intervene in the row or apologise to Mr Green, the Conservative immigration spokesman. Instead, she used a television interview to defend the police’s tactics.

She claimed that it would be “Stalinist” for politicians to intervene in the inquiry – a reference to how Mr Green’s arrest had been compared to state control during the Soviet era. Mr Green, who had made a series of embarrassing disclosures after receiving leaked Whitehall documents, was arrested and had his property searched last Thursday in an operation involving 20 police officers. He was bailed on suspicion of conspiring to break the archaic law of “misconduct in public office”.

It has emerged that MPs were privately discussing whether to protest during the debate on Wednesday’s Queen’s Speech if Mr Martin did not act. Senior Conservative figures said they might even organise a walkout from Parliament if the authorities did not apologise.

In The Daily Telegraph on Monday, Denis MacShane, a former Labour minister, describes the affair as “a mammoth breach in the core democratic doctrine of parliamentary privilege.”

Scotland Yard could decide to drop the investigation as early as today amid widespread criticism of senior officers. The Daily Telegraph has learnt that Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick, who oversaw the operation, plans to apply to the Home Secretary to take over from Sir Ian Blair as head of the Metropolitan Police.

The Home Affairs select committee was preparing for an inquiry into the affair.

The pressure on Gordon Brown to speak out intensified after footage of a television interview circulated on the internet showing the Prime Minister admitting that he received leaked documents as an opposition MP in the 1980s. He boasts of having a good “mole” in Whitehall.

New details of the police investigation were disclosed on Sunday. The junior Home Office official at the centre of the inquiry – who was arrested in November – was named as Chris Galley. He is a Conservative supporter who previously stood to become a Tory councillor.

Mr Green was allegedly accused of “grooming the 26-year old official – a claim described as “grossly inappropriate” inappropriate” and “cack-handed” by senior Tories. One of the key pieces of police evidence was a letter sent by Mr Galley to Mr Green in mid-2007, in which the Home Office official applied for a job with the Conservatives. In the letter, Mr Galley was understood to have set out how he had helped the party by providing sensitive information.

Detectives were believed to suspect that Mr Green kept Mr Galley in the Home Office as a Conservative “agent”. However, this was firmly denied by senior Tories who claimed that he was not offered a job and was a “slightly fragile character”.

MPs from all parties believe that centuries of Parliamentary privilege could have been jeopardised by the police investigation.

None of the leaks at the centre of the scandal threatened national security, prompting accusations of a political witch-hunt.

There were also signs of a Cabinet split over the issue.

Miss Harman became the most senior Government figure to voice concerns about the police operation. She said: “I’m very concerned indeed. I think there are a number of fundamental principles that we all want to make sure are protected. We have got to be sure that whilst MPs are not above the law, that actually they are able to get on with their job without unwarranted interference by the law.

“These are very, very big constitutional principles, we have to make sure they are protected.”

Miss Smith repeatedly refused to apologise to Mr Green and hinted that there might be more to the case than was publicly known. “This started as an investigation of a systematic series of leaks from a department that deals with some of the most sensitive and confidential information in government,” she told the BBC’s Andrew Marr.

“I have been very clear that in my view the police should have operational independence, they should be able to pursue those investigations in the way in which their professional judgment suggests. I do not know what evidence they are looking at – neither do any of the other people who are commenting,”

Referring to allegations of state interference, she added: “In my book Stalinism and a police state happens when ministers direct and interfere with specific investigations that the police are carrying out.”

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