The Prime Minister's official spokesman Tom Kelly was plunged into the controversy over an alleged cover-up in Downing Street after confirming that Tony Blair had been interviewed for a second time in the "cash for honours" inquiry.
The police asked for a news blackout on their second interview with Mr Blair. The interview lasted 45 minutes and took place last Friday in Downing Street. News that he had been questioned as a witness was withheld from the Cabinet, Mr Kelly and his team at No 10. It was known to only a tightly knit group of top aides.
There was speculation at Westminster that the police called for the blackout to avoid alerting Lord Levy that Mr Blair had been questioned again on details about the honours given to secret Labour Party donors. Lord Levy was arrested earlier this week on suspicion of perverting the course of justice.
However, it meant that, for six days, Mr Kelly was left in the invidious position of misleading the press and public, and it inflicted further damage on Downing Street at a time when it is fighting accusations of a cover-up over the honours investigation.
On Wednesday, after Lord Levy's arrest, Mr Kelly was directly asked whether the Prime Minister had been interviewed again by the police. He replied: "As far as I am concerned, nothing has changed." He had used that formula in recent weeks to deny rumours that Mr Blair had been interviewed.
The delay in releasing the information meant that Mr Blair could not be challenged by MPs at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday. But Mr Kelly said the timing was the responsibility of the police. "As far as we were concerned, nothing had changed. During the course of Wednesday afternoon, the police contacted Downing Street to inform us that the requirement for confidentiality had been lifted."
He accepted that the circumstances were "very unusual" but said: "I can only know what I am aware of." He was on the plane to Davos with the Prime Minister but insisted that he had not known about the second police interview until he was told to lift the police blackout. Yesterday, he faced accusations of misleading the media at a heated briefing with lobby journalists and snapped: "I work bloody hard not to mislead this lobby. If you say so, I will see you in court."
A safe pair of hands
Normally unflappable, Tom Kelly lost his cool yesterday when he was accused of misleading journalists at Westminster. He said he had worked "bloody hard" not to mislead the media and threatened court action for anyone suggesting he had.
It was a rare flash of anger from the Prime Minister's official spokesman, normally mild-mannered with a thick Belfast brogue. He was brought in to restore confidence in the Downing Street communications operation after the rows over "spin" that engulfed Alastair Campbell. Mr Kelly, a former BBC executive and a father of four, is a civil servant and as such is expected to be scrupulously non-party political. He earned a reputation as a safe pair of hands as the chief press secretary to the late Mo Mowlam when she was Northern Ireland Secretary.Reuse content