Ex-Cabinet members challenge Brown's judicial inquiry claim

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The Independent Online

Former members of Gordon Brown's Cabinet yesterday questioned his claim that he wanted to launch a judicial inquiry into phone-hacking while he was prime minister.

And Mr Brown's claim that his proposal was blocked by the civil service was rejected by Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, who argued that he could have overruled his advice.

As the former prime minister sought to rebuff Tory claims that his government had failed to stand up to Rupert Murdoch's empire, he told MPs on Wednesday that he had tried to launch a public inquiry in February last year. Mr Brown said: "It was opposed by the police, opposed by the Home Office and opposed by the civil service and it was not supported by the [Culture] Select Committee."

Some Labour Cabinet members have a different recollection of events. They claimed the idea of an inquiry was never a formal proposal discussed inside Downing Street or by ministers. "If it was a proposal, it was one by Gordon to himself," one minister said.

Another said the idea never got past first base because a hacking inquiry would have looked like a "revenge attack" on News International after The Sun deserted Labour and switched its support to the Conservatives the previous September.

"It would have backfired on us badly. It would have been seen as nakedly party political on the eve of a general election," the ex-minister said. Former Cabinet members said it was Mr Brown's decision not to pursue the inquiry. "He could have driven it through the machine if he had really wanted it; he was the prime minister after all," one said.

Sir Gus took the unusual step of releasing the memorandum he submitted to Mr Brown last March. In it he concluded it was "doubtful" an investigation was justified under the Inquiries Act 2005 and could have been challenged in a judicial review – especially if it covered the media in general.

A tighter remit covering only the News of the World "could be deemed to be politically motivated" in the run-up to an election, the memo said.

Sir Gus did not mention that Andy Coulson, the Conservative Party's director of communications at the time, had resigned as News of the World editor over the initial hacking revelations in 2007

The "restricted" document reflected the findings of the Culture Select Committee, saying its report was "essentially concerned with a localised issue involving the actions of a small number of people within NOTW. Does that really amount to a matter of public concern justifying a public inquiry?

"It is questionable whether a public inquiry would be likely to uncover more evidence than the police and the committee were able to do bearing in mind the events in question occurred in 2005-07. Any documentary evidence may no longer exist."

The Cabinet Office said yesterday: "The advice was requested by the prime minister. Decisions on whether or not to hold a public inquiry, and on its scope and nature, are always the decisions of a minister."

Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, accused Mr Brown of rewriting history: "If as prime minister he'd really been so determined to get to grips with this – and he was a powerful Chancellor – he was at the apex of British politics for 13 years. Are we now supposed to believe he was hamstrung by dastardly officials?

"There were many other things he wanted to do where he was happy to bulldoze the opposition but he didn't seek to do so on this particular issue."