Tony Blair endured his most difficult monthly press conference yesterday as he struggled to explain the Labour MP Clare Short's claim that Britain had spied on the United Nations and the collapse of the case against the GCHQ whistleblower Katharine Gun.
The Prime Minister was holding his 17th press conference at Downing Street. Since he introduced the televised briefings in June 2002, journalists have tried, but failed, to catch him out. In his previous monthly showdowns with the media there have been no gaffes and Mr Blair has taken some delight, after the proceedings have gone on for an hour, in asking his tormentors how long they wanted to continue.
Yesterday was different. Mr Blair knew that he would face a barrage of questions on Ms Gun's case, which has reopened the controversy over the legal case for the Iraq war. What he had not counted on was Ms Short's spectacular allegation on BBC Radio 4 just four hours before his press conference.
It was too late to call off the event, which would have looked even worse. An uncomfortable-looking Mr Blair tried to launch a carefully planned initiative to help Africa, which might normally have madeheadlines. But he admitted at the outset that the reporters would soon be on the attack over Ms Short's comments and Ms Gun's case.
The Prime Minister barely concealed his fury as he condemned Ms Short's remarks as "deeply irresponsible" and accused her of threatening the essential security of Britain by attacking the security services. He said: "It is wrong and it should not happen. It is as simple as that."
He stopped short of issuing a full denial of Ms Short's claim on the grounds that governments did not comment on the work of the intelligence services. But he insisted that this was not an indication that the allegation was true. "Our security services, particularly today, particularly with global terrorism as it is, perform an absolutely vital task on behalf of this country," Mr Blair said.
"Many of their people work in circumstances of very great danger and it really is the height of irresponsibility to expose them to this type of public questioning and scrutiny in a way that can do absolutely no good to the security of this country."
Mr Blair was challenged on Ms Short's claims from the first question at the press conference, which lasted over an hour. The tension was eased with laughter when Patrick O'Flynn, the political editor of the Daily Express, said: "Prime Minister, you have branded Clare Short today as totally irresponsible and entirely consistent. Have you just woken up to the nature of Clare Short, who you have known for a long time, and what does it say about your own judgement that you could allow someone like that to sit in the Cabinet and be privy to all this information for so long?"
Mr Blair said: "That is a good question. To be fair she did a good job as International Development Secretary and I'm sorry that she has said the things that she has said this morning.
"But she must know, and everyone must know, that you can't have a situation where people start making allegations like this about our security services. It's completely irresponsible, she knows that."
Mr Blair tried his best to stonewall the persistent questioning on the spying allegations. He insisted: "I'm not going to comment on the work that the security services do. No prime minister has done that. But I am going to say this: We act in accordance with domestic and international law and we act in the best interests of this country and our security services are a vital part of the protection of this country."
The Prime Minister was repeatedly challenged to confirm or deny Ms Short's allegations and pressed about her future as an MP. Asked whether Ms Short should be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, he said: "I can assure you I don't deal with who is prosecuted and who is not prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act. I will say, however, that I really do regard what Clare Short has said this morning as totally irresponsible and entirely consistent."
He was also asked whether Ms Short could continue as a Labour MP. He said: "These are issues that I will have to reflect upon, but as I say, this has happened this morning and there will obviously be issues that arise."
Repeatedly pressed on the collapse of the case against Ms Gun, a former GCHQ employee, Mr Blair insisted that he was not responsible for the decision to prosecute. He said that the case was not dropped because of concerns over the Attorney General's advice on the legality of the Iraq war being scrutinised in court.
"My understanding is that it is absolutely nothing whatever to do with that," Mr Blair said. "It seems to me pretty obvious that it was to do with the interplay between evidential issues and the legal framework. But it isn't to do with the publication of his legal advice.
"Large parts of the public out there will be saying what on earth are we doing having a situation where people are talking openly about the work of our security services in a situation where this country is, as other countries are, under the threat of terrorism, and when we have just been through an immensely difficult international situation in which our troops are engaged in conflict. Well, I'm with them."
Mr Blair said the Attorney General spoke to Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, before the case against Ms Gun was dropped. "I think he did speak to the Foreign Secretary about it, because the Foreign Secretary is the minister who has got responsibility for GCHQ," Mr Blair said. "But the Foreign Secretary did not, like I didn't, play any role in the discontinuance of the prosecution."
He refused to comment on suggestions that the Attorney General had counselled against the legality of war throughout 2002 and only gave legal justification in January 2003.
"I'm not getting into giving a running commentary on all the discussions with the Attorney General throughout the period," he said. "What I am saying to you is there was never any question of us being able to go to war without the Attorney General's advice being clear. That advice was clear. It was clear throughout and we acted upon it."
REACTION TO THE CLAIMS
Michael Howard, the Conservative leader: "The situation now seems to be a complete mess. It's about time the Prime Minister got a grip on it and sorted it out."
Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader: "The Prime Minister must come clean. He must reassure the British people his Government was not involved in spying on Kofi Annan in the run-up to the Iraq war. Mr Blair cannot use the security services as a shield to duck this question. His administration made a virtue of releasing intelligence information when it suited him to make the case for war. He can't have it both ways."
Donald Anderson, Labour chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee: "All countries do proper intelligence and it's in their national interest to do so. It's not in their interest that former ministers start talking about these secrets. I fear that although this is wrong in principle and clearly against our national interest, and I believe Clare was wrong in saying this, I don't see how it could be taken further."
Tam Dalyell, Labour MP, Father of the House of Commons: "The next step is for the Prime Minister to tell us candidly whether his former cabinet minister, who he kept in his Cabinet for a long time, is reporting accurately or inaccurately."
Barry Hugill, spokesman for human rights group Liberty: "Clare Short's done what Katharine Gun did. She has technically breached the Official Secrets Act. If the Government were as foolish as to try to prosecute Clare Short, Liberty would act in her defence."
Alex Standish, editor of Jane's Intelligence Digest: "If you have a recently departed senior minister who can't keep their mouth shut, then the intelligence services are going to start questioning whether they will be dangerously exposed by ministers who are going to let the cat out of the bag without realising it."
David Shayler, former MI5 officer and whistleblower: "[When] you start bugging our allies, you are breaching the Geneva Convention and other treaties and you are operating outside the law. If they are tapping Kofi Annan's phone, they may gather personal information that may be used to compromise his role as UN secretary general."
Richard Tomlinson, a former British intelligence agent prosecuted for breaking the Official Secrets Act: "There has been a lot of illegal work in the intelligence services and I'm sure there was an awful lot in the run-up to the war. I'm also sure a lot of my former colleagues were uncomfortable with what they were sked to do. I think a lot would be sympathetic to Ms Gun."Reuse content