Tony Zone: Who leaked notes on the Dome?

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Indy Politics

The New Labour Cabinet had just taken its first controversial decision. It was June 1997, and Tony Blair was delighted with the way the delicate discussion on the future of the Dome had been conducted in his absence.

The New Labour Cabinet had just taken its first controversial decision. It was June 1997, and Tony Blair was delighted with the way the delicate discussion on the future of the Dome had been conducted in his absence.

"It was very impressive that your decision didn't leak. There would be a far bigger problem if we were irresponsible about this," he told his assembled senior ministers.

We know this because yesterday the verbatim record of this cabinet meeting, and of one that took place a week earlier while the Prime Minister was at a memorial service, were both leaked. Last night, as Downing Street prepared for a full-scale inquiry into the revelations, the question on everyone's lips was: "How?"

There had been leaks of cabinet minutes before, of course. In one celebrated case in 1976, notes of a meeting at which ministers discussed replacing child tax allowance with child benefit had appeared in the press.

But this latest case was different. The blow-by-blow account of each minister's objections to the Dome in yesterday's Mail on Sunday newspaper was far more detailed than a mere cabinet minute. Such notes are brief and record individual ministers' views only if they specifically request it, constitutional experts explained yesterday.

This account set out in almost clinical detail how ministers lined up to voice their objections to the project. It would be a political disaster, said the International Development Secretary, Clare Short. There was a grave danger the dome would have to be bailed out financially, said the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Alistair Darling.

What the newspaper appeared to have obtained was a copy of the Cabinet Secretary's record, written by a small group of note-takers and pooled after the meeting. This record was only ever seen by a small group of senior civil servants. Unlike the full minutes, it was not sent to cabinet ministers, who were much more likely to indulge in strategic leaks than civil servants.

Peter Hennessy, Professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, said yesterday's account of cabinet controversy was "Grade One Listed".

"The actual squiggles taken by the note-takers, and there's normally three of them - the Cabinet Secretary and two others - are not declassified," he said. "I don't think the senior Civil Service has leaked this - it's not the sort of thing they do."

One possible clue to what had happened, Professor Hennessy said, was the fact that such records were now held electronically instead of simply being locked in a secure cupboard. It was just possible that a hacker had extracted the documents from the cabinet secretariat's cyber-safe.

The theory was given further weight yesterday with the news that The Mail on Sunday had a similar, though less detailed, leak only two months ago. And that story, recounting what Gordon Brown apparently told the Cabinet after his first Budget, related to a meeting on 3 July 1997, the next such gathering after the two in late June to which yesterday's story referred.

Like the series of leaked Downing Street memos that appeared earlier this year in various Murdoch newspapers and which seemed to have come from an adviser's dustbin, it seemed The Mail on Sunday's documents might have been a "job lot".

Downing Street sought to play down the leak, suggesting that the papers obtained by The Mail on Sunday in September had turned out not to be genuine. However, its spokesman could give no detail of its response at the time, and sources at the newspaper said it was never asked to print a retraction.

"When it was looked into, the last one turned out to be inaccurate on specific points," the Downing Street spokesman said. "If these were genuine documents, there would obviously be questions asked."

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