Page last updated at 16:46 GMT, Sunday, 30 November 2008

Green arrest adds Tory edge

ANALYSIS
By Iain Watson
BBC Political Correspondent

Damian Green
Mr Green's arrest is putting pressure on Gordon Brown

The arrest of the shadow immigration spokesman Damian Green has allowed the Conservative leader David Cameron to get on the front foot, after struggling to make his voice heard during the credit crunch.

He used not the comment pages of a highbrow and voluminous Sunday broadsheet to discuss issues of ancient liberty and the right of the present-day opposition to hold government to account, but the tabloid pulpit of the News of the World.

He is trying to reach beyond the Westminster village and tell people who might otherwise not have heard of his assiduous, but not exactly high-profile, immigration spokesman why this arrest matters.

And he has put both the prime minister and the home secretary in a bit of a tight spot.

Tongue lashing

Damian Green is by no means the only MP ever alleged to have been involved in the leaking of information

By, in effect, asking for condemnation of a police action, he could calculate that their response was likely to look weak.

It was hardly surprising that Home Secretary Jacqui Smith stuck to the line that she would not interfere with the operational independence of the police, when asked about this by Andrew Marr on BBC1.

But while Jacqui Smith might be able to brush aside Conservative criticisms, she will find it much more difficult to deal with a tongue lashing from the Labour benches.

What seems to have perturbed some on the government's side of the House is the decision by the police to search Damian Green's Commons office, and the decision by the House of Commons authorities to allow this.

Different tone

Mr Green is by no means the only MP ever alleged to have been involved in the leaking of information so there is something of a feeling among his fellow MPs of 'there but for the grace of God go I'.

Harriet Harman
Comments from Harriet Harman did not directly contradict the home secretary's position - but her tone was noticeably different

But there is also genuine concern that 'privileged information' might have been compromised - for example confidential correspondence with constituents - when Damian Green's office was searched. There are worries too that the sanctity of parliament has been breached.

Comments from the Leader of the House Harriet Harman in a Sky News interview did not directly contradict the home secretary's position - but her tone was noticeably different. That is noticeably different as in the Atlantic Ocean is noticeably different from Windermere.

She said the operational independence of the police had to be balanced against their need for them to be accountable; she talked of the importance of opposition MPs holding the government to account.

And she hinted at the need for a review of police powers: "I think we should hold fire until after this investigation and then we can look at the process by which police come into the House of Commons, search an MP's office, take the computers - which obviously raises the question of confidential privileged information between MPs and constituents - all of that sort of thing will have to be looked at."

Damaging

Labour's former Europe minister Denis MacShane has put the Speaker Michael Martin in the spotlight - demanding a full statement from him, saying: "We need a debate on what's taken place...MPs' offices have intimate private material that is no business of the state within the confines of Westminster."

The more distance Gordon Brown seeks to keep from the controversy, the more the demands increase for him to get involved

The former home secretary David Blunkett has also expressed misgivings, but a Labour MP from the all-party home affairs select committee, David Winnick, may yet cause the most damage to the home secretary by demanding a statement from her, rather than from the Speaker, on Wednesday.

That is the first day of the new session of Parliament and the day of the Queen's Speech, when the government will want the maximum positive publicity for their legislative programme for the year ahead.

While Gordon Brown has said he had no prior knowledge of Damian Green's arrest - as they say in his part of Scotland, when an incident comes back to bite someone - "he kens noo".

The more distance he seeks to keep from the controversy, the more the demands increase for him to get involved.

His apparent lack of knowledge of the detail of the investigation has not stopped the Mail on Sunday running the legend "Brown's police state" over several pages.

But the righteous indignation of MPs may be tempered if the police do find the shadow immigration minister was "procuring" rather than simply receiving leaks from the Home Office - in other words if he had actively encouraged the whistleblower in his actions.

The shadow home secretary Dominic Grieve has said that "nobody offered an inducement" to a home office civil servant to leak information.

If that turns out to be the case, then the Opposition and some on the Labour benches will accuse Whitehall and Scotland Yard of an over-reaction to the dissemination of information that has thus far caused embarrassment to the government rather than a breach of security.



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