Theresa May was accused on Monday night of writing a letter to her Cabinet arch-rival Michael Gove over the failure to tackle Islamic extremism in Birmingham schools so that it could be leaked to damage him.
The claim by Labour came after the Home Secretary repeatedly refused to say who authorised her private Cabinet letter to be published on the Home Office website last week. The letter challenged Mr Gove, the Education Secretary, to say whether his department had ignored warnings dating back to 2010 about attempts to take over state schools in the city. It was seen as her retaliation after Mr Gove criticised the Home Office’s record on tackling extremism at a lunch with The Times newspaper.
Answering an emergency Commons question on Monday, Mrs May said: “I did not authorise the release of my letter to the Education Secretary.” She did not respond to Labour claims that the letter had been written in order to be leaked.
Mrs May and Downing Street refused to disclose who decided to publish the highly sensitive letter. Fiona Cunningham, one of the Home Secretary’s closest aides, resigned at the weekend for giving a counter-briefing to The Times, but Number 10’s announcement of her departure did not mention the letter at the centre of the bitter Cabinet dispute. The mystery over who released the letter remains despite an inquiry into the affair by Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, said last night: “The Home Secretary claimed she did not authorise the release of the letter to the media or onto the website. Yet time and again she refused to answer whether she wrote it in order to leak it, who did release it and why she left it on the Home Office website for three days. Theresa May didn't write or send the letter until after Michael Gove briefed The Times. Are we really supposed to believe she didn't write it in order to leak it back?”
In the Commons, Mrs May and Mr Gove put on a show of unity as they tried to draw a line under the damaging controversy. But Ms Cooper said that the Government's conduct had been "shambolic" and demanded assurances the two Cabinet ministers "will not put their personal reputations and ambitions ahead of making the right decisions for the country". Mrs May attacked the record of the previous Labour Government, saying that it had channelled public funds to groups which supported extremism.