Lance Price, a former deputy to the Prime Minister's press secretary, Alastair Campbell, has been told that it is "completely unacceptable" that he should publish a daily diary he kept during his Downing Street years. The ban is surprising because the author adamantly denies that his diary contains anything intended to damage Tony Blair or the Government. One scholar who has read the manuscript described it as "affectionate".
The ban is thought to be the first of its kind since the furore that surrounded the publication of diaries by the Labour cabinet minister Richard Crossman in the 1960s. There is no suggestion that the book breaches the Official Secrets Act, but it is deemed to run foul of the management code for civil servants. Although a political adviser, Mr Price was on the Civil Service payroll from 1998 to 2000, part of the period covered by his diary.
He has been told in a letter from the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull: "I find the whole premise of a book of this kind completely unacceptable. I cannot consent to [its] publication."
Mr Price's publishers, Hodder & Stoughton, have appealed to Sir Andrew to change his mind, but a Cabinet Office spokesman confirmed that an outright ban is still in prospect. He said: "The Cabinet Secretary is still considering the manu-script. It would be premature to talk about approval, or a publication date."
Speaking from his home in France, Mr Price told The Independent on Sunday: "I have never been in the business of trying to damage the Government, and I don't think there is anything damaging in there. It's a day-to-day account of what was going on in Downing Street. I can only surmise that they think something as raw as a diary like this is unacceptable."
One Whitehall insider speculated yesterday that the real purpose of the ban is to protect the future prime minister, Gordon Brown, from being attacked or ridiculed by advisers who have worked for Mr Blair. The section of the diary covering the worst political crisis of the first Blair administration, when roads were blockaded by lorry drivers protesting at the price of fuel, portrays the Chancellor as being "in denial" and refusing to accept that escalating fuel duties were aggravating the problem.
In June last year, the Chancellor was enraged by the advance publicity for a book written by Mr Blair's former economics adviser, Derek Scott, and issued a statement attacking what he called "deliberate peddling of lies and distortions".
The ban throws a question mark over whether Alastair Campbell will be allowed to sell the diary he kept during his seven years as the Prime Minister's chief spin-doctor. Part of this was read out during the long inquiry by Lord Hutton into the suicide of the weapons inspector David Kelly. Other, unpublished sections are thought to be highly critical of the Chancellor.
But the Government could become embroiled in a repeat of the infamous Spycatcher case, when Margaret Thatcher's government tried to prevent Peter Wright, a retired intelligence officer, from publishing his memoirs - only to discover that they could not stop the book being published abroad and smuggled into the UK in large numbers, turning it into a bestseller.
Anthony Seldon, author of several acclaimed political biographies, described the ban as "bizarre" and "inconsistent." He said: "I accept that there have to be constraints on what people who have held public office can write, but there is a long list of people who have been allowed to publish books or diaries. A ban will give this book huge mystery value.
"I have seen this diary and it's full of life. It's affectionate towards Blair and towards people in government."
Mr Price said that he had not written the diary with the intention of publishing it, but to jog his memory if he decided to write a book about the Blair government. He had loaned the manuscript to Mr Seldon as background material for a biography of Mr Blair. Mr Seldon persuaded him to take it to a publisher.
A press release issued last month announced that Hodder & Stoughton would publish the "frank and revealing" diary later this year.
There is no known precedent in recent times for the Civil Service code being used to ban a book outright. Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, was allowed to publish his diary soon after he resigned from the Cabinet in 2003, having submitted it to the Cabinet Office. In the case of Mr Scott's book, the Cabinet Office ordered several passages to be cut, then passed it for publication. In 2002, Sir Andrew Turnbull allowed Dame Stella Rimington, the former director-general of MI5, to publish her autobiography.
The unpublished diary of Lance Price
23 December 1998 (Peter Mandelson's first resignation from the Cabinet)
P said: "What do you think I should do?" I said, you have to resign, but say you've done nothing wrong but that you're not prepared to see the Government damaged. He said: "Yes." I gave him a squeeze on the shoulder and he had tears in his eyes too.
7 May 1999 (Tony Blair is worrying Bill Clinton will do a separate deal with the Serbs over Kosovo)
TB said: "If he does that... I'm finished with him."
6 June 2000 (Mr Blair is due to address the Women's Institute, a speech that would be one of the worst of his career)
Everybody's in a total panic about it. (Peter) Hyman is trying to rebuild it with scraps of paper. Anji (Hunter) is going round saying: "Why is a speech for 10,000 women being written by men?"
8 June 2000 (The WI speech has been attacked by the Daily Mail as cynical "spin")
All a bit ironic as AC (Alastair Campbell) was at the forefront of those telling TB the speech was crap.
14 September 2000 (UK gripped by fuel crisis)
Brown had been in denial all week. (John Reid) the only one with the necessary balls.
Or is this !@* diary the one they're really worried about?
4 July 2003 (An extract from the Campbell diary was evidence in the Hutton inquiry. The full work is potentially explosive.)
Spoke to Hoon, who said that a man had come forward who felt he was possibly Gilligan's source ... GH said his initial instinct was to throw the book at him, but in fact there was a case for trying to get some kind of plea bargain. He was saying yes to speak to AG, yes he said intel went in late, but he never said the other stuff. It was double-edged but GH and I agreed it would fuck Gilligan.