Donald Macintyre's sketch: Matinee idol Lord Owen steals the limelight once again

Owen has 'concerns' over the Cabinet Secretary's role in the referendum

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Indy Politics

He oozed gravitas. The matinee-idol looks, if a little craggier, seemed surprisingly undiminished by age. He had the effortless authority of a leading ministerial participant in the last referendum on Europe 40 years ago, and his high octane lesson in recent political history would not have been easy listening for the Cabinet Secretary.

Lord [David] Owen has “concerns” about Sir Jeremy Heywood’s “crucial” role in the forthcoming referendum. This was no slight on “his integrity or his ability”, of course. But you didn’t need a GCSE in Owenese to understand that this was a fairly devastating account of how Sir Jeremy doesn’t use his powers as the former Foreign Secretary thinks he should.

“I think his capacity to make a judgment between the interests of the Prime Minister and the wider Cabinet… or between the interests of ministers collectively and civil servants, is open to question,” he confided in the Public Administration Select Committee. This was not because of any “fault of his”, Lord Owen explained with a flick of the magisterially patronising, but because his whole career had been in “the hot house atmosphere” of “private offices” under “three successive Prime Ministers”. Heywood had been a private secretary to Tony Blair in a period of “the greatest accumulation of power under a prime minister” – a “presidential system”.

And a period in which, Lord Owen ominously explained, Sir Jeremy had acquired “habits”. Habits, for example, reflected in the Hutton enquiry noting the absence of the “normal practice of minuting minutes” when they examined “the decision-making structure” which had “a very tragic result” in the death of David Kelly. And in the “unbelievable” delays to the Chilcot enquiry, for which Sir Jeremy bore “a measure, quite a large measure” of responsibility. And in Plebgate, which he initially investigated.

 

This all arose because the government wants to drop the “purdah” rules that prevail in a general election from the referendum run-up – infuriatingly to Eurosceptic MPs, including the committee chairman Bernard Jenkin.

Lord Owen, a “yes” campaigner in 1975 (though by his own account one who “hates” the euro) said purdah – which means the government machine cannot be used to advance its case in a referendum – should prevail for around 35 days, longer than before general elections.

“I do not think [Sir Jeremy] understands the rules of purdah. Not the general rules for referenda but... the spirit that underlies it... The overall structure of government under which we have... happily lived for many decades is under threat.”

And it was right to demand “a far greater degree of impartiality and objectivity on these matters than we have yet seen in his performance”. Cripes! No serving minister would dare use this kind of language about the country’s top civil servant.

In passing, the peer mentioned Harold Wilson’s “astute”– if “somewhat cynical” – 1975 decision to allow dissident Cabinet ministers to campaign on the No side when he thought he could win, not wanting to create “martyrs” by sacking them. It wouldn’t be the first time a PM took such a decision, nor the last. As Cameron may well soon demonstrate, Lord Owen didn’t need to add.

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