Father of all plots: the kidnap that wasn't and the end of a protest group

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The Independent Online

It was a story guaranteed to grab headlines; Special Branch officers had foiled a plot by Fathers4Justice to kidnap the Prime Minister's five-year-old son Leo.

Members at the "extreme" fringes of the organisation had been overheard talking about the plot, which would be a bid to gain publicity for their cause.

Within minutes of the "World Exclusive" in The Sun, Downing Street and the Metropolitan Police issued a tight-lipped "no comment" on the grounds of national security.

But the revelations have dominated news reports and led to closure of F4J by its founder, Matt O'Connor.

The group was formed in 2002 by fathers who claim the courts and family law discriminate against men in child custody cases.

It has used direct action stunts such as flour-bombing the Prime Minister and climbing on to Buckingham Palace dressed as Batman and other action heroes.

However, it seems the latest ruse, far from being a serious attempt to kidnap Leo Blair, was, at most, the slightly inebriated flight of fantasy of three men in a pub. Mystery surrounds how the plan came to The Sun's attention and why it took the Met's Anti-Terrorist Branch (SO13) more than a month to approach the men believed to be behind it.

Jolly Stanesby was one of three men "talked to" by S013 officers last week about the plot. The 36-year-old father from Plymouth has been involved in a number of F4J protests.

Mr Stanesby, who campaigns full time for fathers' rights, said: "The whole thing is just completely ludicrous and has been blown out of all proportion just to discredit the campaign.

"Last week, these Special Branch officers came round to my house. They were non-specific but said they were just warning me not to do anything silly, and that if I did they wouldn't hesitate to shoot me.

"I knew the other two chaps they had visited and the only time I could think of when we had all been in the same place was when we had been in a pub." According to Mr Stanesby, he and his two friends, who are not members of F4J, had attended a march in Westminster on 9 December before going on to a pub.

His account varies slightly from saying Leo Blair was not mentioned at all, to admitting "something may have been taken out of context", but on one point he is insistent: "We were just drinking and joking; we would never have seriously discussed kidnapping somebody else's child - we are for parents' rights, after all. If they really thought we were a threat, why did they wait for more than a month before even coming to us about it and then suddenly it's all over the papers?"

Mr O'Connor, infuriated by the negative publicity, told Channel 4 News last night that he will close the campaign. He said: "I regret to say that, three years after starting the organisation, we're going to cease and bring it to a close. I am very angry this organisation ... has been undermined by the people it is supposed to serve."

The group has suffered as a result of some high-profile members being exposed as having been violent to former partners and threatening family law solicitors.

Last June, a splinter group of members broke off from F4J, claiming Mr O'Connor had "gone soft". F4J - and the splinter group - may believe the whole thing is a dastardly MI5 plot to discredit them. In the febrile world of Westminster gossip, there have been dark mutterings about collusion between No 10 and The Sun over the leaking of the story during a week of embarrassing headlines for the Government over health and education. Fuel was added to the fire by reports that Dave Hill, the Prime Minister's communications director, had been involved in lengthy discussions with the editor of The Sun, Rebekah Wade, before the story broke. But when the political editor of Sky News, Adam Boulton, implied as much, he received a dressing down from No 10.

But absent fathers suffered a further blow when it emerged the Government plans to use debt collectors to chase men who do not pay the Child Support Agency.

Whatever the truth of the story, it seems little Leo can sleep safe in his bed.