Boris Johnson has been rebuked by the Speaker, no less, as well as by his circling Conservative opponents, for saying that Keir Starmer spent “more time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile”. What’s the truth of the matter?
In the absence of judge and jury, I adopt a Kathryn Stone inquisitorial-style approach, as approved by mainstream Parliamentary opinion and many of Johnson’s Tory critics, to get to the heart of the matter.
My means of doing so is the record set out in Red Knight, our proprietor’s biography of the Labour leader. Lord Ashcroft’s narrative is as follows.
Savile was questioned under caution by police on October 1 2009, exactly eleven months after Starmer became Director of Public Prosecutions. The former said that allegations against him were invented.
The Crown Prosecution Service lawyer who later reviewed the case determined that there was insufficient evidence to charge Savile with any criminal offence.
Were there evidence that Starmer knew anything about all this at the time, our proprietor would have mentioned it. He does not. There is none (at least as far as I know).
In short, on the charge that Starmer knew about Savile’s crimes and failed to prosecute him, Starmer is not guilty – pure white as the driven snow.
But the full facts of the case are a bit more tricky for Starmer. Almost a year after Savile’s death in 2012, Starmer asked his legal adviser to launch an inquiry into the CPS’s decision not to press charges.
In the wake of the investigation, Starmer issued a public apology, and said that “the approach of the police and prosecutors to credibility in sexual assault cases had to change”.
If Starmer wasn’t guilty of knowing about Savile’s crimes at the time, why the apology? Because, as Director of Public Prosecutions, he was responsible for the CPS: that’s why he had the authority to commission the inquiry.
“While it may be true that he was not personally responsible for the CPS’s decision in 2009 not to prosecute Savile, there is no doubt that this failure occurred on his watch and was therefore, ultimately, his responsibility”.
Such is Lord Ashcoft’s verdict. The principle of figures in authority holding responsibility for decisions that they know nothing about may sound counter-intuitive. But it is fundamental to how our system of government operates.
Every student of it is taught the post-war tale of the Crichel Down affair, in which Lord Dugdale resigned after a public inquiry found ineptitude and maladministration in the management of the Crichel Down estate.
And every believer in the claim that the political past was better than the present cites Lord Carrington’s resignation in the wake of Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982.
Not that it necessarily was. Consider Amber Rudd’s resignation in 2018 after she inadvertently misled the Home Affairs Select Committee in the wake of the Windrush Affair.
The former Home Secretary’s account is that she officials gave her the wrong information and later failed to clear up the problem; and that leaks from her department were politically motivated and “definitely intended to embarrass me”.
While the consequent inquiry didn’t recommend any civil servant face a misconduct investigation, it singled out Hugh Ind, the then Director General for Immigration Enforcement Hugh Ind, for criticism.
He then moved to a different civil service job, as is the way of these things. But no-one much now, except poor old Rudd’s friends, goes into battle on her behalf.
No swords leap from the scabbard to defend Lord Carrington over the Falklands, arguing that he knew nothing himself about Argentina’s invasion plan (and couldn’t reasonably have done).
Dugdale has no champions – or at least, not the Speaker of the House of Commons, the massed ranks of Labour MPs, or the Prime Minister’s Tory opponents, poised for the kill.
You may say that Starmer wasn’t a Minister as DPP, and so was under no obligation to quit. But I’m not arguing that he should have done. Rather, I’m pointing out that he was ultimately responsible, as his own apology shows.
I’m mildly surprised that no-one in Downing Street or at CCHQ seems to have read and digested this part of Red Knight.
Admittedly, Starmer’s cupboard is bare of surprises, and the Daily Mail‘s extracts from the biography led on the trivial through intriguing question of whether his parents were working class or petit borgeois.
My own reaction as a reader was to find parts of the book heavy going, but that isn’t remotely true of the chapter on Starmer’s term as Director of Public Prosecutions. I was hooked by it.
That’s because it’s the only time in Starmer’s life that he’s exercised political power, thus giving us a glimpse into how he might govern if he becomes Prime Minister.
Yes, he played a big part in the campaign for a second referendum as Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (one that he is not now anxious to highlight).
But there is no power in Opposition. I can tell you. I’ve been there – having served on David Cameron’s front bench, though not at anything equivalent to Starmer’s senior level.
Even as its leader, Starmer has less raw power now than he did as DPP. The collective picture that our proprietor paints of him isn’t of a bad man, let alone one as slapdash as Johnson.
But it is a portrait of a politician imprisoned by ideology and vulnerable to a characteristic that the Prime Minister shares: one so common at the top of politics as to be scarcely worth commenting on.
Starmer doesn’t want to be caught on the wrong side of public opinion, and this will undoubtedly have been a factor in his reaction to Savile. The pendulum swung all the way to another extreme.
Ashcroft cites Scotland Yard’s post-Savile policy of “immediately believing every allegation of child abuse made by victims” – founded on “the presumption that a victim should always be believed should be institutionalised”.
Those words are from a report written by Tom Winsor, then the Chief Inspector of Constabulary. “Winsor is said to have been influenced by Starmer’s policy,” writes Ashcroft. “So too was his successor as DPP”.
And it was this doctrine that led to Carl Beech’s lies being judged “credible and true”, with vile damage to the reputation and livelihood of Harvey Proctor and others.
So from this lurch of the pendulum came the disaster of Operation Midland. “Credible and true” is the title of our proprietor’s chapter telling the story of Starmer’s entanglement with the Savile case, and what happened afterwards.
The other operation covered in the chapter is Operation Elvenden, the investigation into inappropriate payments by News International to police officers and other public officials.
Ashcroft writes that “ultimately, not one of the thirty-four journalists arrested or charged under the guise of Operation Elvenden has a conviction on their record”. This seems to be what Johnson was referring to.
The Prime Minister now says of his Savile claim that “as far I’m aware, it’s fairly accurate.” Well, if he’s going to make such a charge he should be aware, and my take is that it’s fairly inaccurate.
But there’s enough in it for a Minister to be able to say on air: “The failure happened on Starmer’s watch and he had to apologise for it.” Such an evasion would be by no means exceptional for any politician.
As for Starmer, he won’t want to talk about Savile. Not a bit. For the tale moves ineluctably on to Beech and Midland – and the sacrifice of innocent Proctor on the altar of ideology.