British diplomats in Washington confirmed yesterday that they made two last-minute telephone calls to Georgia to find out whether John Major could have secured clemency for Nick Ingram.
The admission came after a claim on Thursday night by a senior source within the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles that its five members had been waiting for the Prime Minister to make a plea for clemency. He said mercy would probably have been granted if Mr Major had intervened.
Last night, officials in Washington and Downing Street said the Prime Minister would not have asked for clemency even if the board had guaranteed it. The board's public stance was that a British intervention would have made no difference.
Thursday night's calls were made by a consular official and a senior embassy official in Washington, thought to have been Peter Westmacott, a counsellor for political and public affairs, after Downing Street had been given details of the source's claims by the Independent.
The Independent's source, who had access to details of the five-man board's deliberations, said its members were expecting Mr Major to appeal for clemency. They were also concerned about the message an execution might send to the world ahead of the Olympic Games in Atlanta next summer.
"We set up two lines of communication with Washington, one with the State Department and the other with the international section of the Justice Department," the source said. "We wanted to ensure that details of any call or fax did not go astray.
"We waited and waited, but the call never came."
In London, Mr Major had long ago taken advice on the possibility of intervening. It is understood Foreign Office officials were briefed on the case by the Department of Corrections and made a recommendation that intervention would not score any political points. The crime was too grisly and the evidence against Ingram was overwhelming.
The source said: "If John Major had written, that would have been viewed as an unprecedented and momentous intervention." And, in a clear reference to the forthcoming Olympic Games, he added: "Sometimes, and particularly at a time like this, we must consider Georgia's place in the family of nations."
Shortly after 7.30pm, the source's claims were passed to Downing Street, sparking a flurry of activity. At about 8.15pm, a consular official is understood to have contacted Christopher Hamilton, the board's director of legal services, to ask for clarification of its position.
At about 8.40pm, the Washington embassy call was made. Without confirming he made the call personally, Mr Westmacott said: "We were certainly in touch with the board. But at no stage were we suggesting to them that there was any likelihood at all of the Prime Minister's position on the Ingram case changing."
Within an hour of that call, J Wayne Garner, chairman of the board, denied that a British intervention could have made a difference. "John Major couldn't change this decision, the Governor couldn't change this decision, and Bill Clinton couldn't change this decision," he said.
However, the Independent's source elaborated: "After no intervention came, it was clear that we could not say that Mr Major would have made a difference. That would have appeared to have shifted the blame on him. It was decided to say he would have made no difference."
Once this pronouncement was made publicly, Ingram's fate was sealed. Quite simply, it would have been impossible for a stay to have been issued, even if Mr Major had intervened, because the board had already declared that his intervention would have made no difference at all.