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Her Majesty's Ambassador, Washington

Volume 932: debated on Monday 16 May 1977

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

The House will recall that last Thursday, 12th May, when I was questioned about the position of Sir Peter Ramsbotham, Her Majesty's Ambassador in Washington, I said that Sir Peter had served with distinction and that I had no criticism to make of him. I added that when I became Foreign Secretary he was on the point of taking up his post and that as incoming Foreign Secretary I confirmed him in it.

Since then, as a result of reports in the newspapers, it has been charged that a smear campaign has been launched against Sir Peter Ramsbotham, which, and I quote
"bears all the marks of being governmentally inspired".
I therefore wish to make it clear that no such campaign has been launched. The hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker) first raised this, in a public letter to me late on Thursday evening, and I replied immediately to confirm that what I had said in the House at Question Time represented my view in all respects.

I have myself since then been able to examine the account written by the Press Association of the official briefing on Thursday morning, and this contains no offensive personal reference to Sir Peter Ramsbotham. The Press Secretary at No. 10 issued a personal statement "on the record" on Friday morning to this effect.

During the past weekend further Press reports appeared alleging that the personal remarks about Sir Peter Ramsbotham were made subsequent to the official briefing, in private conversation. By their very nature, it is impossible to prove or disprove these charges. In these circumstances, I think it right, therefore, to say to the House that I do not hold these views about Sir Peter Ramsbotham; and I should perhaps add that he himself is in no doubt about this, since I telephoned him immediately last Thursday, after the stories had appeared, in order to assure him of my confidence and to confirm that the reports I have referred to do not reflect the views of Her Majesty's Government.

Is the Prime Minister aware that we welcome his statement, the fact that he recognises Sir Peter Ramsbotham's distinguished service to this country, and the fact that he has no criticism to make of him and, therefore, totally dissociates himself from all the stories which have appeared in the Press? However, in view of what the Prime Minister subsequently said, how does he explain the remarkably similar stories written by reputable journalists appearing simultaneously in London and the provinces last Thursday afternoon?

Is it not a fact, bearing that in mind and realising that the Prime Minister knows these matters just as well as the rest of us do, that this is a sordid and disreputable affair, for which he should now, as the Head of the Government, apologise personally and have the courage to do so?

My view, having read the stories in the two evening newspapers, is that they do not coincide. What coincides is the headline. What is interesting is that the headline first appeared in one of the newspapers and then appeared in a later edition of the second newspaper, not having previously appeared in it. Whether that is coincidence or not, I do not know, but that is as far as I can go on the fact of the headlines of the stories.

As regards the particular concern of these matters, the Press Secretary at No. 10 is a reputable and honest man who stands high in the calendar of all Press secretaries. Everyone who has dealt with him knows that to be the case. I have gone as far as I can in respect of this gentleman, who is a civil servant and who has told me, as far as he can recall, exactly what happened. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that there is nothing to apologise for. I have given a full explanation. Sir Peter Ramsbotham knows what the facts are, and I think that we should leave it there.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that our primary concern in these matters should be the effect that they have on the Labour Party membership? Does he recall that when he defeated our right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot) for the leadership of the Labour Party he was able to achieve a large degree of unanimity behind his leadership, because associated with his victory was the idea that now the Labour Party was to break from the Oxford-based intellectual elitism which has so long dominated the Labour Party and that, therefore, many of us on this side placed our trust in his leadership to take the Labour Party from that sort of intellectual grip?

Therefore, will the Prime Minister now say that he has not abandoned those original ideas of making a break from the conventional appointments of the past and that he can now give leadership to the Labour Party by saying that we shall have a more imaginative approach, that we shall search out the magnificent talent that there is, up and down the country, prepared to support the Labour Party? Will he not agree that now is the time to reach out and bring those people into government, so giving a fresh start and stimulus to this country?

I am sure that the Labour Party membership would not want an unwarranted personal slur to lie against the name of any of Her Majesty's ambassadors. That is the subject of the statement that I have made today. My hon. Friend's other questions go much wider. Perhaps we can deal with the appointment which has been made, if hon. Members wish it. I did not think that the appointment which has been made was a conventional appointment from the past. I thought that it did recognise the talent which exists up and down the country.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Press Association Political Correspondent reported at 12.23 p.m. on Thursday that Mr. Jay had got the job because the Foreign Secretary was

"… unhappy about the way in which the embassy was being run"
and that he felt that
"… it was completely out of tune with modern Britain"?
Does that accurately reflect what the Prime Minister's Press officer said at his Press briefing a few minutes earlier?

I have answered these questions as well as I can. It was the hon. Gentleman himself who named Mr. McCaffrey as the originator of the smear campaign, yet he himself has the impertinence—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."]—to complain about attacks being made on Sir Peter Ramsbotham. Mr. McCaffrey is a civil servant, who, as the hon. Gentleman knows very well, cannot complain. That is by way of preface, because the hon. Gentleman's rôle in this has not been a very honourable one. [HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw."] As regards what has been reported, all I can refer to is the account given by the Chief Political Correspondent of the Press Association. Any stories that were written were based on that account. I can go no further than what I have said.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Prime Minister has alleged that my rôle in this matter has not been a very honourable one. He has referred to what I said a few days ago. After I had received his letter in reply to mine on Thursday night I said:

"I regret that the Prime Minister did not repudiate"—

I said,

"I regret that the Prime Minister did not repudiate the smears against Sir Peter. I understand that they were based on a briefing given to the Press by the Prime Minister's Press Secretary."
We wish to hear what the facts were.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The letter I had from the hon. Member for Blackpool, South said that he deplored the fact that "this smear campaign"—that was the first time the word "smear" had been used—

"bears all the marks of being governmentally inspired".
Before any inquiry could be made, at the end of his letter he said,
"We are sending a copy of this letter to the Press."
He sought the publicity. He sought to implicate those who could not answer back.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that in the previous Session you ruled that it was not in order for one hon. Member to suggest that another hon. Member was not honourable or that his conduct was not honourable, and when I used the phrase in connection with the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maguire) you, quite rightly, asked me to withdraw it.

Order. Everyone knows that the rules of this House are that it is out of order to cast a reflection on the personal honour of any hon. Member.

What I said was that the hon. Member's rôle was not very honourable. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I do not want to impugn the hon. Gentleman's honour. Everybody knows his reputation in this House. I hope, too, that he will not impugn the honour of the Press Secretary at No. 10.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the House and the country will have noted with interest the conversion of the Tory Opposition, who have stopped hammering and attacking the Civil Service and have now come to their aid? No doubt the Tory Party would have done exactly the same thing if the reputation of a Whitehall charwoman had been at stake. Would my right hon. Friend not agree that the statement made by the present Ambassador to the United States makes it clear that he has not shown any of the vindictiveness displayed by right hon. and hon. Members of the Opposition? He has not behaved in their frenetic manner. He is a far better example of how this matter should have been handled. Would my right hon. Friend not further agree that the statement by the current Ambassador to the United States ought to be accepted by all sides so as to give the new Ambassador a fair chance to make his way in his important task?

I have known and worked with Sir Peter Ramsbotham in harmony and amity for some years. I am on close terms with him as a colleague from when we were both at the Foreign Office. He has behaved in this matter as I expected he would. He has been generous in his comments about his successor and he has refrained from embroiling anyone else. When I spoke to him on Thursday night, as soon as I saw the reports in the newspapers, which I must say distressed me very much—[Interruption.] I would not expect the hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) to understand what I am trying to say. I immediately telephoned Sir Peter because although I knew that he would not have seen the papers, I wanted to assure him of the position as far as I was concerned. It is in the interests of this country in the United States that this should not become a party row.

It is our representation that matters, and Sir Peter Ramsbotham has generously indicated what he thinks about that.

Does the Prime Minister not realise that there remains a strong contrast between what he has said and what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker) about the report of the Press Association? The report of the Press Association seemed quite clear, and I must say to the Prime Minister that, to all reasonable people, it did direct itself towards a Government Office and most probably to his. In the light of that, can he not please relieve the mind of the House? The House must be concerned that there has been what can only be characterised as a thoroughly bad bit of work here. The Prime Miniser has inadequately replied to the issue.

I am not sure to what further point I can reply. Of course this was directed at No. 10, and it was the No. 10 Press Office which gave the Press briefing. I have gone through the steps in sequence. I have explained that the official briefing contained no offensive personal reference. I have explained that, after the hon. Member for Blackpool, South had made his allegations, a personal statement was put out by the Press Secretary. I have explained that there were further indications given, saying that this did not take place in an offical briefing but took place in a private conversation. I have said that it is impossible to prove or disprove that. For all of those, whoever they may be, who have told the right hon. Gentleman that the reference did occur, there are others who are equally willing to say that it did not and that they heard nothing of the sort said. It is impossible to prove or disprove. That is why I came to the House to make a statement about the Government's attitude to Sir Peter Ramsbotham. I suggest, with respect, that that is the proper thing to do. I cannot explain any further than that.

Is the Prime Minister aware that we regard his statement as being what is owed to the present Ambassador and what is owed to the incoming Ambassador and that we accept it in that light? Will he accept that there is this grave disquiet about the coincidence of the reports in the two papers? While it is not unknown for papers, particularly those with flagging circulations, to be adept at picking up what other papers have printed—on the basis that they do not want to waste good "agony"—is not the coincidence of these reports extraordinary? While we accept everything that he has said about the official briefing, will he give an undertaking to the House that he will continue his investigations as to how these ideas were reported as being the thoughts of the Government while the Government deny that they ever existed?

I have not asked the editors of the newspapers how one of the papers came to change its headline in a later edition. I do not think that that is my job. I have gone as far as I can in explaining fully to the House what I know took place. I cannot pursue these matters any further than that. The Lobby system is regarded in two different ways. Some people think it works; some people think it does not. I do not think it worked very well on this occasion, I must say.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that many of us feel that both the Ambassador-designate and his distinguished predecessor are emerging with more credit out of this business than many of their so-called champions or detractors in this House the longer this silly and demeaning business goes on? Would he not further agree that there is a contrast, which we have to draw, between him speaking frankly on Thursday of last week about a somewhat agonising dilemma which he faced and the unattributed briefing upstairs? Do not these unattributed briefings, given by people who cannot be named to people who cannot answer back, inevitably lead to misunderstanding? Should we not have more of the former and fewer of the latter?

I think that after this last incident there is a case for looking at these arrangements again. I am attracted—I think that it is because of my own temperament—to having public briefings and not private briefings, because, with respect, I am not terribly ashamed or afraid of what I say on these matters and I am happy to have it published and printed. There is a longstanding convention. I know that attempts have been made to alter it in the past. Both sides had better reflect on what happened last week and see whether the system can stand up to it.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, in view of some of the things that he has said, no one on the Opposition side of the House is wishing in any way to make the situation more difficult, either as far—[Interruption.]—no, hon. Members will just have to listen until I have finished—concerning either the present Ambassador in Washington or the future Ambassador in Washington? Many of us on the Opposition side of the House have never commented on the position of the future Ambassador and recognise that, as a person, he may do an extremely good job there, but we are concerned with quite a different point.

The right hon. Gentleman has not answered my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker). The right hon. Gentleman has not answered the fact that there were remarkably similar stories written both in London and in the provinces by reputable journalists. We are not going to argue against the Press Office at No. 10, but the right hon. Gentleman is responsible for the whole Government. There has been a mistake. There has been a very sad and unhappy episode. Does the right hon. Gentleman not owe it to the House and the country personally to take responsibility for it and to apologise for it?

I am not clear as to the particular point about which the right hon. Gentleman wants the apology. [Interruption.] However, as far as I am concerned, I am ready to accept, and I have accepted full responsibility for it. I cannot say what has taken place in private conversations, of which there are apparently two versions. I do not know, and never will be able to find out, what has taken place in those particular matters.

As far as the other matters are concerned, it seems to me that this calls into question the nature of the briefings that are given and those who receive them, and it is to this that I think that we had better direct our attention in the future. Last Thursday I came to the House and gave my spontaneous reaction to a question that I was asked. This afternoon I have given as much information as I can about the events that have transpired since. I cannot give more.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the phoney fury over this appointment illustrates something that we all know too well—that we should believe less and less of what we read in the newspapers?

I think that it depends how much I know of the story how much I believe, on the whole. But, no, I would not want to destroy faith in the newspapers. Some of them have printed the accounts very fairly and without much prejudice, but certainly one on Saturday morning distinguished itself by the way in which it got down in the gutter about the Press Secretary at No. 10.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, while we are pleased that it has been stated that no Minister has said anything or directed anyone to say anything derogatory about Sir Peter Ramsbotham, many of us who have benefited from the wisdom and advice of Sir Peter in both Iran and Washington, will deeply regret that his considerable talents are now to be confined to Bermuda?

Yes, I understand that, but, as was said at the time when the change was made, it was thought that there was a case, after three years, for a new approach in Washington. That has been the Government's case, and that is the Government's case as it stands. All Governments are entitled to take that view and to present a different picture at the time. There was no reflection on Sir Peter at all, and he is going to a very important post.