It’s not often I disagree with my colleague Tom Watson MP, but on the issue of Woolf being forced out of the chairmanship of the child sex abuse inquiry after a string of damning revelations I think he’s got it wrong. “Labour should not go after May”, he’s reported as saying. Of course he’s right that what matters now is to find a positive replacement, It has to be someone who (i) has knowledge and experience of child abuse issues, which Woolf did not, (ii) has the forensic skills of a High Court judge, which Woolf also lacked, (iii) is manifestly without any Establishment and Home Office connections, which Woolf manifestly did have, and (iv) commands the confidence of the survivors and victims groups, which again Woolf clearly didn’t. But to ignore the Home Office’s deep and dishonourable collusion in trying to fix the chairmanship of this inquiry in order to cover up the charge of organised abuse by prominent politicians and officials, and to suggest we simply move on, would be a serious mistake.
Theresa May is guilty on several grounds. It must have been obvious from the start that an inquiry forced on the government by Jimmy Savile and Operation Yewtree, the repeated scandals involving children in care, the revelations of clerical abuse and quite likely to involve government ministers and lead officials, had to be led by a person demonstrably free of Establishment connections. Yet the Home Office, and all of these initiatives would have been signed off by May herself, made attempt after attempt escalating even to ignominious excess to head off the inevitable. First it appointed Lady Butler-Sloss, the sister of Sir Michael Havers, who was Thatcher’s attorney general in the 1980s when it is alleged that years of child abuse involving Westminster and Whitehall were happening. Then it appointed Woolf who turned out to be a neighbour and regular dinner companion of Lord Leon Brittan, Thatcher’s home secretary at the same sensitive time when files about Westminster paedophile activity wen missing (what a surprise!). Then to cap it all, to save her the Home Office took the unprecedented step of drafting a letter no less than 7 separate times to try to give the impression that Woolf’s relationship was really rather inoffensive. Then when it was all over, May yesterday issued a statement saying that Woolf “would have carried out her duties with integrity, impartiality and to the highest standard” – typical Establishment language oozing with arrogance, self-belief and contempt for the weight of accusations launched against her. After all this, and the Home Office withdrawal from any support for search and rescue missions for migrants in the Mediterranean, let alone the revelations about the depredations of undercover police officers which the Home Office again tried to close down, it is difficult to see how May can retain her office, nor even more so her leadership ambitions.
It is all reminiscent of Blair’s appointment of Lord Hutton to do the whitewash job he did on the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. He and Mandelson and a small closed group of advisers, possibly including Heywood, sought around for someone who they hoped would command public credibility, but above all who would deliver a ‘sound’ judgement – Whitehallese for letting all the main culprits off the hook. The Woolf episode displays exactly the same characteristics. The Establishment never learns, because it thinks it can get away with it.