Tough police line with protests was 'a political order'

Accusations of "pressure from above" to keep the peace are denied as China's leader moves on to France
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Senior cabinet sources last night raised the prospect of an internal rift over the controversial policing tactics during the state visit of the Chinese president, Jiang Zemin, which led to the suppression of peaceful protesters.

Senior cabinet sources last night raised the prospect of an internal rift over the controversial policing tactics during the state visit of the Chinese president, Jiang Zemin, which led to the suppression of peaceful protesters.

Home Office minister Paul Boateng said yesterday that it was "inconceivable" that government pressure had been brought to bear on the Metropolitan police to ensure a "trouble-free" visit. But one Cabinet source said last night he was personally convinced that police orders had "come from above".

"People were taken aback by some of the heavy handed policing. There is no doubt that it was directed from Downing Street and the Home Office," said one Cabinet source.

The Metropolitan Police announced yesterday it would mount an investigation into the policing operation, and ministers feel that orders to "avoid embarrassment" during the Chinese state visit may have been interpreted too literally.

Meanwhile the pressure group Free Tibet revealed it was taking legal advice after a number of its members were prevented from demonstrating during the visit. "The inquiry is clearly welcome but there are still questions about policing and we want to see greater transparency," said spokeswoman Alison Reynolds.

Suggestions of Cabinet dissent over the suppression of free speech initially surfaced when David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, said on BBC's Question Time that there would be an automatic review of policing after Jiang's departure.

Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe yesterday said that the policing methods had been "extremely unusual": "What is unusual is that we have seen people being prevented from waving flags. This is very, very rare, it is not how the British do things.

"Of course, if there is a major state visit you do not go courting embarrassment, we would all go along with that, but we are entitled to ask why was there this sort of policing and was there political pressure on the Met?" she said on GMTV. She is expected to challenge the Home Secretary Jack Straw over the policing in a Commons law and order debate tomorrow.

Downing Street has strongly denied giving the police operational orders for the visit, although officials confirmed that the route was discussed with the Metropolitan Police and the Home Office. But the Government placed no political pressure on the police to prevent demonstrators disrupting the visit, Home Office minister Paul Boateng insisted.

He told Alistair Stewart on GMTV's The Sunday Programme: "It is inconceivable for ministers to give operational directions to the commissioner, or to any chief constable. The commissioner has a responsibility to protect the monarchy and sovereign heads of state. That is what he and his force were doing. I have no doubt that the review he is carrying out will show very clearly that they were doing their job as best they know how.

"We have in the Metropolitan Police an unprecedented level of expertise of policing demonstrations and public events and protecting sovereign heads of state. I congratulate them on their work."

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