The Prime Minister has plenty on his plate unscrambling the existing inquiries
By Iain Martin
Why did the Government rush to set up child abuse inquiries?
When lurid allegations emerged that senior Tory figures had been involved in child sex abuse in a Welsh care home in the 1980s the Government was desperate to avoid being seen as responding too slowly. Inside No 10, Craig Oliver, the Prime Minister’s head of communications, argued that ministers had to take command of the situation.
The case of the BBC, where it had waited too long to take seriously revelations about the presenter Jimmy Savile, showed what could happen if an organisation doesn’t get on to the front foot. David Cameron sanctioned Government action.
What exactly did the Government announce?
The Welsh Secretary met with Steve Messham, who was making claims about Lord McAlpine, former Tory Treasurer. Meanwhile, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, ordered the head of the National Crime Agency, which has not yet been fully established or staffed, to produce an interim report by April examining the allegations.
Police forces across the country are preparing to lose experienced officers working on live cases, as they will need to be diverted to work on the investigation. Mrs May also announced that a senior independent figure, Mrs Justice Julia Macur, a High Court judge, will conduct a fresh investigation into the Waterhouse Inquiry, which reported in 2000, to see if it adequately investigated these claims. In this way, largely on the strength of allegations by Mr Messham, the Government has ended up with two more inquiries to add to its ever-lengthening list.
What happens to the inquiries now?
With Mr Messham now having apologised to Lord McAlpine, saying that his claims were based on a case of mistaken identity, and the BBC’s Newsnight in turmoil over the interview it ran with the accuser, the Government is left with the difficult decision of whether or not to proceed. If it cancels the inquiries it may be accused of not taking the claims of other victims seriously. But the basis on which they were established is now clearly seen to be deeply flawed. David Davis MP, the Tory former shadow home secretary, said yesterday: “At the very least before we spend vast sums of money someone should take a clear decision on whether or not there is a case to answer. It does seem that the evidential basis for these inquiries has basically evaporated.” It is all a reminder that establishing public inquiries – which seems to be Britain’s fastest growing industry – is something best approached carefully and calmly.
What of Tom Watson?
This is extremely embarrassing for Mr Watson, the Labour MP who first made allegations in the House of Commons last month under parliamentary privilege. He talked then of “clear intelligence suggesting a powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament and No 10.” With his reputation as an amateur sleuth, based on his role in the investigation into hacking on the News of the World, his claims were listened to respectfully by many MPs and ministers. In the Commons last week he even talked of “rape and torture” in Whitehall and said that the Government’s inquiries were insufficient. Mrs May, he claimed, was instigating “the next stage of a cover-up”. Mr Watson’s influence at senior levels of the Labour party – he is deputy party chairman – meant that his latest campaign was taken seriously by the leadership. Yvette Cooper even demanded that the Government should announce a single, giant, over-arching inquiry.
Should Mr Cameron now get involved in the BBC’s latest troubles?
No, he should leave that to the Corporation’s under-fire management to deal with, although it cannot be long before someone demands another inquiry into what has been going on at the BBC. Instead, the Prime Minister is going to have enough on his plate unscrambling the existing inquiries and dealing with the imminent culmination of Leveson.
Does this row make Cameron’s decision more difficult on Leveson?
Yes. In an increasingly febrile atmosphere the Prime Minister will soon have to decide whether or not to implement whatever Lord Justice Leveson recommends on regulation of the press. The BBC has proven again, in the Messham case, that it has a mixed record, at best, on journalistic investigations. It is usually very cautious, although here it is seems, ironically, to have been utterly reckless. But who will do the difficult work of digging up wrongdoing if the BBC is stricken and the press then emasculated by statutory regulation? Mr Cameron will have to grapple with these issues. In doing so he might like to reflect that while establishing the Leveson Inquiry may have seemed at the time like a clever way of handling a crisis, it has ended up leaving him with one of the most difficult choices of his premiership.