A Special Comment…
If kind readers will indulge me in the absence of Our Genial Host, I found myself last night watching Keith Olbermann’s recent ‘Special Comment’ segments – usually a combination of unashamedly personal analysis and self-righteous ranting, variously covering California’s Proposition 8, the death of Habeas Corpus, and most famously the Geraldine Ferraro comments about Barack Obama. Looking at ‘Green-gate’ (as some immutable law of reporting would have us call it), I couldn’t help but imagine: What Would Olbermann Say?
“And finally, as promised, a Special Comment. By way of preface, the last 48 hours have seen Parliamentary history remade, with an Opposition spokesman arrested by Counter-Terrorism officers, and his Parliamentary office searched. The initial confusion has begun to settle to the consensus that something remarkable, and potentially quite sinister, has occurred. The Conservative Party is outraged, MPs are livid, the Government are washing their hands and the Metropolitan Police Service are refusing further comment. Something has gone awfully awry, and what began as a routine investigation into a leak within the Home Office has metamorphosed into an ugly brawl of recrimination.
I cannot claim that any of the actors in this sordid drama emerge with any credit – the Government’s insistence of Ministers’ ignorance of proceedings does not paint them in a positive light, the Conservative’s are being forced onto the front foot and hoping that the fault does not lie with their arrested Spokesman, there are ructions within the Palace of Westminster, and the Police are likely to come under severe pressure to explain themselves. So whom amongst this sorry cast fares worst?
The Government is insisting that no Minister was aware of the arrest before it took place. Assuming this to be true, and I believe questions still stand regarding the extent to which the Cabinet Office (who initiated the investigation) were kept abreast of developments by the Met, the Government might escape lightly. They substitute the charges of political manipulation of the police for a guilty plea to ignorance. That is an unconscionable position for political leadership to hold. The Conservatives must have had some fleeting concern that seeing one of their front-benchers arrested would bring back the memories of their darker days, unless his name can be cleared with great haste. Their strategy of unflinching support seems to have allowed them, at least until this moment, to escape unscathed. Unless lies have been told, and I do not rule that out, I doubt senior heads will roll in either party.
The Mayor of London is reflected in perhaps the kindest of these unflattering lights – he told the Met that he thought their errand foolhardy, but did not (indeed could not) act to prevent the arrest of an official from his own party. The Metropolitan Police Service will undoubtedly come under severe pressure, but in the context of crises from the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry to the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, I am sure they will weather this storm too – in lacking a permanent figurehead, the axe is unlikely to fall at New Scotland Yard.
The two organisations to come out worst from this episode are the Civil Service and the Offices of the House of Commons. The Permanent Secretary of the Home Office, Sir David Normington, has admitted that he knew of the arrest shortly before it occurred. Similarly, my conversations with the Cabinet Office yesterday revealed that ‘senior Civil Servants’ had the same knowledge just as the police were moving in, though they could not confirm that the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, was amongst that number. An explanation is required as to why this message was not communicated to Ministers in time for remedial action to be taken – any moderately-capable politician would have known that this would open the Government up to accusations of abuse of power. Either the Civil Service were tardy in relaying the message to Ministers, or they were unable to do so in time to prevent the unfortunate scenes that will no doubt emerge on the video tape whose very existence has yet to be officially confirmed.
And yet all of this could have been avoided, all of it made moot, had the Police been refused permission to search the office on the Parliamentary Estate. I cannot believe that they would have found it as efficacious, or even plausible, to arrest Damien Green knowing that the evidence they sought was beyond their grasp. There would not have been the same scale of cross-party outrage, genuine outrage, had that invasion not taken place. This would have been a much less significant event had members of the Counter-Terrorism Unit not been allowed to execute their warrant, an action that simply would not and could not have occurred had Parliament not been in recess.
And for that reason, the blame lies in one of two offices. I had laboured under the apprehension that the Speaker of the House of Commons alone could grant permission for the police to go about their duties on the Parliamentary Estate. If Speaker Martin did explicitly authorise this egregious breach of protocol and convention, then I wonder whether the voices calling for his removal from office will not grow in deafening crescendo.
But news from the Spectator indicates that Speaker Martin was not responsible for granting the Police their field-trip. That dubious honour appears to reside with the Serjeant-at-Arms, Jill Pay, the first civilian to ever hold that office. Speaker Martin is apparently furious that, whilst he was merely informed of the action, one of his senior officials gave authorisation to that from which anyone familiar with Speaker Lenthall would have undoubtedly resiled.
This is a story of second-tier officials making decisions that rightly belonged to the very highest decision-makers in this land. Whilst ‘doing his job’, I do not believe that Damien Green should have left his party and his Leader in such a potentially-awkward political and legal predicament. The Acting Police Commissioner should not have pursued what his predecessor, however flawed, would have recognised as a heinously overzealous investigation. The Permanent Secretaries, if given the chance, should never have lagged in conveying to their Secretaries and Ministers of State what would have been recognised as egregious political insensitivity. And finally, and most seriously by far, the Serjeant-at-Arms should never have permitted what the Speaker would surely have known was a fundamental rent in the fragile fabric of Parliamentary privilege.
This was a failure of the second-tier political actors. In all of this, the key decisions were made not by those whom we hold accountable by virtue of our suffrage, but those who are appointed to act of their behalf, to shield them from controversy, and to bear the brunt of the failures of their Leadership. This was a failure of the second-tier political actors because they themselves will never face by trial of election the brutal roar of our outrage that cloaks itself in righteous indignation at the neglect of our ancient liberties. This was the failure of the second-tier political actors, because the first tier were never involved. And that can only be described as failure at the highest level.
Good Night and Good Luck”
as told to Morus