When Amber Rudd resigned as work and pensions secretary on 7 September, she said her requests to see the attorney general’s legal advice on whether proroguing parliament would be lawful had been refused by Downing Street. Later, the Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman tweeted the above statement, attributing it to a “Govt source.”
No evidence to back up the government’s claim emerged. Rudd had said when announcing her resignation: “I spoke to the attorney general for half an hour at the weekend to reassure myself personally that it was legal and he reassured me. He said I’d get the legal advice and I have asked for it several times and I have still not had it. I understand that No 10’s advisers have intercepted it to make sure that it’s not released. I think that’s quite outrageous.
I asked Shipman on Twitter the status (not the name) of his source. He didn’t reply (he has a busy Twitter feed; perhaps he didn’t see my question), so I rang Rudd herself. She told me that she had repeatedly asked to be given the legal advice, including on two occasions approaching attorney general Geoffrey Cox. She was told repeatedly that she would be given it. When she was not, her private office told her that Downing Street senior adviser Dominic Cummings had intervened to ensure she was not shown it.
Rudd did tell me that on the eve of her resignation, she was told “that they would set up a reading room the following week to see part of that advice. I had no confidence that would take place given that I had been promised it so many times and had not received it. I have no comeback. I can’t challenge them,” said Rudd.
“There is no individual for me to take on. It feels dishonest.”
The anonymous “Govt source” was being dishonest, not Rudd. This is another demonstration of how British political journalists enable the Johnson government to promote its lies and falsehoods. Note how Shipman applied two sets of standards. An unelected “Govt source” was granted anonymity and could not be held accountable for what he or she said. In contrast, Rudd spoke on the record. Most important of all, by allowing the “Govt source” to exercise anonymity, the source could accuse Amber Rudd of dishonesty without being held to account.
When I put these points to Shipman, he replied that he had “cooperated” with Rudd to publish the details of her resignation, and had “prominently included her accusation that she had asked to see the government’s legal advice and been denied this access.”
However, he added, “the nature of the story was such that [her request to see the legal advice had] to be kept secret until the Saturday evening” which meant that it was “impossible” for him to approach Downing Street to ask about her accusation.
He added: “I was in no way smearing her, but I was providing a right of reply, which I would do before publication except in the circumstances described.
“People can draw their own conclusions about the origin of the anonymous quotes which now pepper the 24-hour news cycle. Government spin doctors have always hidden behind anonymity to make negative points about their opponents and enemies. Reporters have a duty to tell the public what the government’s position is. They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.”