The Truth Shall Make You
The Curious Case of The Mandarin’s Memory
At the conclusion of his career Sir Robert Armstrong was described as “the most public civil servant since Cardinal Wolsey”.
The same largely favourable profile reported the view from Whitehall insiders that “Robert produces so much affection that everyone works well for him. He’s a sympathetic figure”.
Sir Robert served Margaret Thatcher as her Cabinet Secretary from 1979 to 1987. For his troubles he was subsequently given a life peerage: for the past 27 years he has warmed the crossbenches in the House of Lords as Baron Armstrong of Ilminster. He is now 88 years old.
Cabinet Secretary is an enormously powerful and sensitive position. Not only is he (and it’s always a ‘he’) privy to the innermost secrets of government, he also sees reports prepared by the intelligence services and provided to the Cabinet via the Joint Intelligence Committee.
All of which explains why, in late 1986, Sir Robert received a letter from Sir Anthony Duff, Director-General of MI5 informing him of allegations that a Conservative MP, Peter (later Sir Peter) Morrison had “a penchant for small boys”. The spymaster reassured the mandarin that Morrison had denied the claims and that the security service accepted his word and there was no real danger to [national] security.
Nonetheless, Sir Anthony advised, the matter did pose a risk “of political embarrassment to the Government”.
Indeed it did. Morrison was no mere backbencher. He had been a Minister in the Department of Employment and in the same year as MI5 investigated his alleged predilection for children, he was appointed Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party. A year later he was appointed as a Minister in the Department of Energy, with responsibility for Britain’s oil policy. Four years later he would go on to run Margaret Thatcher’s campaign to keep hold of the leadership.
When the Duff letter emerged on Thursday last week, I e-mailed Lord Armstrong to ask five fairly straightforward questions. They were:-
- Whether you recall receiving this letter ?
- What you did with the information ?
- Whether you passed on the allegations concerning this MP in question to the Prime Minister and/or the Chief Whip ?
- Whether you made any attempt to speak with MP yourself about the allegations ?
- Whether, in more recent times, you informed the Home Office and/or its recent internal enquiries about the existence of this letter ?
He did not reply immediately, but was apparently willing to give some kind of statement to the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He told the Telegraph:
My official business was the protection of national security. I have to stress that there was nothing like evidence in this case. There was just a shadow of a rumour. It’s impossible to take investigative action on shadows of rumours. . . If there is some reason to think a crime has been committed, then people like the cabinet secretary are not to start poking their noses into it. It’s for the police to do that.
And he told the Mail:
I thought MI5’s actions were correct at the time. I think they were right to report the rumour, they were right to make what inquiries they could and they were right to come to the conclusion they did. I think if there was evidence it would have been properly examined at the time. I don’t think this is a matter of important people being protected. You can’t pursue inquiries unless you have evidence on which you can base the enquiry. A shadow of a rumour is not enough.
This afternoon, Lord Armstrong finally sent a response (from his House of Lords email account) to my five questions. It appeared that in the three days since he had spoken to the Telegraph and Mail, his memory had suffered a catastrophic failure. He wrote:-
I am afraid that I do not remember receiving Sir Antony Duff’s letter, or what I did when I received it. It is now a long time ago, and there were a lot of other things going on at the time.
Armstrong of Ilminster
Sir Robert famously brought into public usage the concept of being (as he put it during the 1986 Spycatcher trial) “economical with the truth”. But the question of what actions the second most powerful civil servant in the country took about allegations that one of the most senior Tory politicians was a paedophile is too important to be left to this sort of evasive nonsense.
Lord Armstrong thus joins the lengthening list of the great and good who must be summonsed to testify at Lord Justice Goddard’s Public Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. A little robust cross-examination might do wonders to help the noble Lord recover his powers of recollection.