Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Theresa May on Elizabeth Butler-Sloss - I must admit she was her brother’s sister

There were moments when Vaz’s headmasterly tones made you almost want to sympathise with the Home Secretary over the appointment. Almost but not quite

Pressed by Labour’s David Winnick on what she knew when, Theresa May announced: “Of course there was absolutely no doubt that Elizabeth Butler-Sloss was Michael Havers’ sister.”

This was a relief. Who could accuse the Home Office of not having carried out what the chairman Keith Vaz called “due diligence” when it had obviously checked Debrett’s before appointing her?

Unfortunately this wasn’t what Winnick was asking, which was whether she knew about the story that as Attorney General, the judge’s late brother had tried to prevent the MP Geoffrey Dickens naming a paedophile diplomat in the House of Commons. She obviously hadn’t but couldn’t quite bring herself to say so. This was an issue “which has been surfaced in the past few days as far as I am concerned”. So that’s a No? asked Winnick. “I’ve answered the question in the way I chose to answer it.” she replied primly.

Ms May would not have ideally chosen to appear before the Home Affairs Select Committee. If she dreaded that the Labour chairman Keith Vaz would be – from her point of view – at his most insufferably patronising, her dread was justified. Standing by the appointment, she insisted the only issue had been the peer’s “integrity”.

Yes, yes, said Vaz, the MPs were all “great fans” of Baroness Butler-Sloss’s integrity; the point was not her “integrity but “your judgement”.

Asked how she did not even know the titles of the famous 114 missing files she said, elegantly passing the baton, if not the buck: “I think this is a matter for the Permanent Secretary [Mark Sedwill] to consider.”

At one point a sarcastic sounding Vaz told her “You’re just the Home Secretary” and that it was Sedwill who ran the department. At another, he told her grandly, he had no objection to her consulting her notes.

Equally grandly, Vaz reminded Ms May that he had at last week’s session raised with Mr Sedwill the very question of Lady Butler-Sloss’s suitability to chair the enquiry, given that she was, as a peer, a parliamentarian. Ms May might have pointed out – but didn’t – that the committee chairman had not always seemed quite as perturbed by it. For when Sedwill had replied that “no one would question the integrity [that word again] capability intelligence and rigour she will bring to this review,” Vaz had actually said: “I agree with you…”

But that was then. This was a day for homilies. “Can I just gently suggest to you that you should consult more widely?” he asked silkily about the unhappy judge’s replacement. There were moments when Vaz’s headmasterly tones made you almost want to sympathise with the Home Secretary over the appointment. Almost but not quite.

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