If nothing else, Lord Levy has at least learnt the etiquette of being investigated by police. When he was first detained last July, he contemptuously accused officers of using ‘totally unnecessary’ tactics. On Tuesday, he emerged from the police station without a word — and said, through friends, that he was feeling ‘on very good form’. This is remarkable, given that His Lordship had just been arrested on suspicion of perverting the course of justice. But it is also polite.
The police shrugged off Lord Levy’s criticism last July. What baffled them was his claim to have co-operated fully with their inquiry. In fact, he could hardly have been less accommodating to the detectives who questioned him. His approach was to hand over a written statement and say ‘no comment’ to each question, as if he were an American pleading the fifth amendment. While legally within his rights, it displayed an obstructive approach to the investigation. And it set the tone which Assistant Commissioner John Yates has had to deal with from the outset.
As the investigation has proceeded, the Metropolitan Police has amassed a steadily increasing cache of evidence suggesting that they were initially misled. In some cases, this amounted to comparatively minor pieces of information provided by No. 10 being flatly contradicted elsewhere. But there were more startling inconsistencies, too. There was a suspicion that No. 10 was pulling strings behind Mr Yates’s back to find out about the investigation and its progress, acting as if it were above the law.
No. 10’s obfuscation has seemed all the more unnecessary because, I am told, there is still no evidence of a crime under the sale of honours legislation. There is no doubt that the Prime Minister intended to reward major benefactors with honours, nor that donors expected to be so ennobled. But unwritten understandings and innuendo, however politically damning, are no use to the police unless they are sufficiently explicit to secure a conviction in a court of law: a Big Ask, as politicians like to say. Neither government nor donor is likely to have been so stupid as to put in writing a contract which both knew was illegal.
This is why Jonathan Powell, Mr Blair’s chief of staff (and one of those who have been interviewed by the police) is so incensed at the media coverage. He tells friends emphatically that there is no chance of any conviction. It remains my understanding that he is right. There are hard questions about Labour’s accounting practice, and whether a loan granted to a near-bankrupt organisation can in any way be regarded as ‘commercial’ (and therefore non-declarable). But in six months of investigations, email-reading and interviews, police have found no conclusive evidence of corruption with which to press charges against any of Mr Blair’s close advisers.
Where No. 10 is guilty — and has been since the Prime Minister walked through its glossy black door almost ten years ago — is in its failure to tell the whole truth. Its currency has been part-truths and, quite often, downright lies. One example sticks in my mind. When I was political editor of the Scotsman, we ran a story that the Prime Minister was lending his voice to an episode of The Simpsons. That day I took a call from a furious No. 10 official: why had we done this, after being categorically told the story was untrue? The answer came some months later, when the episode was aired. Mr Blair had recorded his contribution at the height of the Iraq war.
Ask yourself this: if the Prime Minister’s aides are prepared to dissemble about something as marginal as an American cartoon show, what hope do the Metropolitan Police have of extracting the full story in the loans-for-honours investigation? Being economical with the truth, misleading the press with statements which are only technically correct, is a habit now embedded in the culture of No. 10. Hoodwinking journalists is by no means a criminal offence. But failing to tell the whole truth to the Metropolitan Police can land you up in jail, should the cover-up be big enough.
Once, a No. 10 denial issued to the press was enough to kill a story. Now, it is more often given a cursory mention, like the legal small print in a mortgage advert. There was a prime example last week when ITV News reported that the Metropolitan Police had discovered a second email system, separate to the formal No. 10 system. ‘There is only one email system at No. 10,’ said the Prime Minister’s official spokesman. It was a categorical statement, and one a detective might be inclined to take at face value. But to those familiar with the strange semantic devices used in No. 10, something is up.
No one was suggesting that there are two email systems at No. 10. The suggestion was that relevant emails were secretly sent using the Labour party email system, a virtual network which can be accessed by any computer. Not so, they now say. But the intriguing new suggestion is that a whistle-blower inside No. 10 has alerted police to documents that were not volunteered to them. Perhaps no lies have been told, but large chunks of the truth appear to be undisclosed.
There has been little enthusiasm for this investigation inside the Metropolitan Police, whose officers have graver crimes to deal with and would rather the House of Commons handled its own tawdry affairs. Understandably, they would have liked to have been shot of this long ago. But the more half-truths are uncovered, the longer officers must spend in pursuit of the whole truth. And this is why the investigation has switched from the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925 to much more serious allegations of conspiracy to pervert the court of justice.
‘I never lie. I am the Prime Minister,’ Mr Blair once told Piers Morgan, then editor of the Daily Mirror. Institutionally, however, No. 10 Downing Street has a finely honed technique for the rationing of truth which has been meticulously documented in a book by my predecessor Peter Oborne. It has become a hallmark of the Blair government, and has ceased to surprise those in the media who encounter it daily. Such tactics, No. 10 believes, are needed to ensure the survival of a government. Deployed against the Metropolitan Police, as they have been, they might yet lead to political downfall.