A close ally of the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, repeatedly applied pressure to the Metropolitan Police to scale down its investigation into phone hacking as the force began discovering what happened at the News of the World, the former Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, disclosed yesterday.
Giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, Sir Paul said that on "several occasions" after he returned to work from an operation on his leg last April, Kit Malthouse, Deputy Mayor and the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority, urged him to remove resources from Operation Weeting into illegal voicemail interception at the paper.
Sir Paul recalled that Mr Malthouse advised London's police force not to succumb to the press and political "hysteria" over phone hacking, indicating that he backed the Mayor's previous stance that calls for a thorough investigation were politically and commercially motivated mischief by Labour MPs and rival journalists. Despite the pressure from the top of the MPA, Sir Paul – whose force had made a series of blunders over hacking before beginning the new investigation – resisted the overtures.
His evidence raises fresh questions about whether Mr Johnson's Conservative administration was too close to News International, whose then chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, was a dining companion of the Mayor and whose husband, Charlie, was with him at Eton.
In September, 2010, in the days after a New York Times investigation suggested senior executives such as the then Tory director of communications, Andy Coulson, had presided over a culture of hacking, Mr Johnson dismissed the story as "a load of codswallop".
In the past year , the new police investigation has identified at least 829 likely victims of phone hacking and uncovered evidence of computer hacking and widespread bribery of police officers .
In his evidence, Sir Paul, who resigned in July 2011, said his force had wrongly adopted a "defensive" stance towards the new disclosures, believing wrongly that the original investigation, Operation Caryatid, in 2006 had been successful. He said: "On several occasions after Operation Weeting had started and I had returned from sick leave, Kit Malthouse, expressed a view that we should not be devoting this level of resources to the phone-hacking inquiry as a consequence of a largely political and media-driven 'level of hysteria'. While understanding his desire to maximise the resources devoted to current issues of crime and public safety, I pointed out the disclosure requirements arising from the civil cases left us with little choice but to invest significant resources in servicing this matter."
The Labour MP Chris Bryant, a victim of phone hacking, called for Mr Malthouse's resignation. He said: "This amounts to a clear political intervention designed to intimidate the Met into dropping an investigation.
"Both Boris Johnson and Kit Malthouse's interventions show they are more interested in protecting their cronies than in pursuing justice."
Mr Malthouse insisted he had behaved properly. His spokeswoman said: "It was entirely proper, as Paul Stephenson indicated this morning, for Kit Malthouse to probe the reasoning behind the allocation of resources into the phone-hacking inquiry. His job is to hold the Commissioner to account."
Earlier at the inquiry, the Metropolitan Police confirmed it had briefed Tony Blair's administration about its inquiry in 2006. Last week, the former Deputy Assistant Commissioner, Peter Clarke, explained he had briefed the then Home Secretary, John Reid. On Friday, Mr Reid said he could not recall any such briefing and had been unaware Labour MPs had been among the victims.
Yesterday morning, Lord Leveson was told that not only had the Metropolitan Police found a copy of the briefing – which it passed to the inquiry – but that it understood that a senior Home Office official had also prepared a briefing for the Home Secretary.