1 December 2017

Why we should all be worried about Damian Green’s laptop


We have learnt two things this morning. The first is that all the evidence points towards the conclusion that May’s number two, Damian Green, looked at (legal) pornography on a laptop in his Parliamentary office back in 2008. (Green denies having done so.) The second is that a police officer effectively ignored an order to delete all the data he had collected as part of an investigation into Green.

Neil Lewis, the retired Scotland Yard detective who inspected Green’s computer and has now claimed that there were “thousands” of pornographic images on the device, told the BBC that “morally and ethically” he didn’t think deleting the copies he had made of Green’s data was “a correct way to continue”. According to the BBC report, “the officer erased the data, as instructed, but kept the copies knowing experts could retrieve the information if they had to.”

Inevitably, these details about Green’s viewing habits have made the headlines. It is just possible, however, that what Mr Lewis did with information that was of no relevance to an investigation into a crime that was never committed, and which he was ordered to delete, is rather more important than what Mr Green did during his lunchbreak.

The backdrop to all of this is the Cabinet Office investigation into Mr Green set up after the Conservative journalist and activist Kate Maltby accused him of making inappropriate advances.

The question that the investigation will answer – and upon which Mr Green’s career depends – is whether or not Mr Green has breached the ministerial code. According to The Sun, the publication of the report into Mr Green’s behaviour is due to be published “as soon as today” and is expected to be “damning” but “will say it is unclear whether he broke the ministerial code”.

But even if the investigation finds against Mr Green, that should not exonerate Mr Lewis and his colleagues. Their behaviour is a reminder that constitutional ideas such as the rule of law and parliamentary privilege are more than abstract principles documented in dusty legal textbooks.

To understand why, it is worth revisiting the arrest in 2008. Green, then shadow immigration secretary, was held for nine hours by counter-terrorism police in relation to a series of Home Office leaks. As well as his Parliamentary office, his homes in London and Kent were also raided by police.

Michael Martin, the speaker of the House of Commons at the time, also allowed police to carry out a search on the Parliamentary estate without a warrant. There could hardly have been a more politically sensitive police investigation as Green stood accused of doing his job: holding government to account.

The criminal charges were – eventually – dropped. But not before MPs from across the House denounced the police for their heavy handedness, and the government and the Speaker of the House of Commons for their disregard of the independence and primacy of Parliament.

After the storm blew over, it seemed that important principles had been reasserted and the mistake corrected. But nine years on, we now know that not to be the case. For without the search of his office, and a policeman’s disregard for his orders, we wouldn’t know about the pornographic images on Green’s laptop.

By concentrating on the embarrassing details of what was on Green’s laptop, rather than how we came to know them, we are prioritising the trivial over the consequential. Arbitrary power of the sort, in this particular saga, held by Neil Lewis and his colleagues has always been dangerous. And it is only more terrifying in the digital age. John Quincy Adams’s recipe for a free society wasn’t complicated: “Nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud” was, according to the Sixth President of the United States, “the only maxim which can preserve the liberties of any people.” That advice is as sensible today as it was in the 18th century.

Oliver Wiseman is Deputy Editor of CapX