Prosecutors issued private warnings yesterday that too much political talk about three MPs and a peer facing fraud charges could prevent the case from going to a full trial.
The revelation that the former Labour MPs Elliot Morley, David Chaytor and Jim Devine may invoke parliamentary prejudice to avoid prosecution set off a furious political reaction from all sides in Westminster.
Some of the comments by MPs came close to implying that the three men are guilty, when their case has yet to come to court. The risk that this could undermine their trial was first raised by the Commons leader, Harriet Harman, who attacked David Cameron over comments he was expected to make in a speech later in the day.
Journalists had been told in advance that Mr Cameron would use the speech he delivered at East London University yesterday morning to deliver a personal attack on Gordon Brown. Mr Cameron had been expected to say: “Look how he tolerates the disgusting sight of Labour MPs taking parliamentary privilege… in order to save their skins and avoid prosecution for fraud and wrongdoing.”
Ms Harman warned: “He’s got to be very careful what he says or his comments might actually jeopardise the trial.” In fact, the Tory leader dropped that passage from his speech at the last minute.
Prosecutors were also alarmed by a remark by the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, who said: “The public would be aghast if they thought there was some special get-out-of-jail-free card for parliamentarians.”
Their fears were echoed by the Speaker, John Bercow, who issued a public warning to MPs yesterday to choose their words carefully when discussing the case. “Members would not wish to interfere with the judicial process, risk affecting the fairness of a criminal trial, or furthermore, prevent such a trial taking place,” he told MPs.