BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 16.06.02

Interview: TIM COLLINS, Shadow Cabinet Office Minister.

What should the Government do now to clear up the row over the Queen Mother's funeral.

JOHN HUMPHRYS; Tim Collins, the government couldn't have been more open here could it. I mean it's published a twenty-nine page document, it's cleared it all up - that's what it says. TIM COLLINS: Well, it published a twenty-nine page document which in itself contradicts itself, and which itself turns out within forty-eight hours not to be a complete version of accounts, because not only do we have Black Rod's story or something very close to Black Rod's story in the Mail on Sunday this morning, we also find out that there were further meetings between Black Rod and Claire Sumner to try to discuss the evidence of the PCC that Downing Street didn't even mention in their twenty-nine page document. HUMPHRYS: It's perfectly understandable surely for somebody from the Prime Minister's office when an allegation like this is made, from somebody in the Prime Minister's office to go to Black Rod's office and say: Look let's look at what is happening here? COLLINS; Well, I think this is a very unedifying saga and I think the millions of people like me who are passionate monarchists are very unhappy that the Royal family is being brought into controversy in this way, but I think what we see through this particular target, I think what this saga is demonstrating is three very important truths about this government. The first is that their instinct is to tell a lie rather than the truth, the second is that their instinct is to bully and intimidate those that dare to be critical. Some of the smear stories against Black Rod in this morning's papers I think are simply shocking, and thirdly, it is that we have a Prime Minister who is more concerned with building up his self-image than building up the public services, which is the job he was elected to do. HUMPHRYS: You say smear stories against Black Rod, there's not a scintilla of evidence that any of those have come from anywhere near Number Ten. COLLINS: Well, the Sunday Times reports this morning that a number of ministers have said that if Black Rod had done what he allegedly has done, in the army he would have been sacked. We have a number of Labour MPs on the record in this morning's Sunday papers saying they're going to call for Black Rod to be dismissed, and what is his alleged crime, it is simply that he decides to tell the truth and not go along with Downing Street's fabrication of the truth. HUMPHRYS: But if you look at what Number Ten was doing it was working from guidelines - this is stated in that document that were drawn up in 1994. Now you were in power in 1994, presumably John Major's office drew up those documents or those guidelines. COLLINS: Well, one of the reasons we're calling for a full disclosure and for a statement to the House of Commons by the Prime Minister is that even that part of Downing Street's defence now looks rather undermined by the Mail on Sunday this morning. According to that newspaper this morning Black Rod pointed out to Claire Sumner, why didn't you refer to this 1994 document when we spoke originally. Although Claire Sumner says in her documents that she was relying on the 1994 document apparently according to Black Rod, she didn't mention that document when she had her initial conversation. The detail is complicated and convoluted but the bottom line is this; we have on the record quotes this morning from Black Rod saying he was under sustained and constant pressure from Downing Street to alter arrangements. We have evidence that Alistair Campbell was spending a huge amount of time writing reams and reams of letters to the Press Complaints Commission which are full of a stack of inaccuracies. This is evidence of government at best pursuing the wrong agenda, at worst trying to intimidate its critics. HUMPHRYS: But you see even if, and as you say it's immensely complex all of this, and it's a pity to inflict on an unsuspecting and undeserving audience, they don't deserve all these details, but let's try - the basic, even if the charge is right that Tony Blair sought a more prominent role for himself, he would have taken Iain Duncan Smith your leader, along with him. This wasn't just him, this was leaders of the party as well as him. COLLINS: Well, we have yet to see exactly what it was. I mean what certainly is one of the allegations of course, is that the Prime Minister or somebody on his behalf wanted the Prime Minister to walk from Downing Street to Westminster Hall, glad-handing I think is the phrase - the people who were there ... That is not something that would have involved the leader of the Opposition. And the evidence for that is actually in Downing Street's twenty-nine page dossier. They admit that somebody from Downing Street rang up Black Rod and said would it be alright if the Prime Minister walked from Downing Street to Westminster Hall. Now very interestingly, very interestingly, they say in their document, the twenty-nine pages, that it was decided and I quote, it was decided within Number Ten without feedback from Black Rod, that the Prime Minister would drive. Now, according to the Mail on Sunday this morning not only was there feedback from Black Rod, but it was fairly vigorously expressed, and it was very strongly counselling the Prime Minister against doing that. HUMPHRYS; But that idea...... COLLINS: So we don't have a consistent story here. HUMPHRYS: That idea of the walk was supposed to have come from Jack Straw and a sort of casual comment about it being a nice sunny day, and he wasn't actually planning to walk down Whitehall or anything, he was going to walk under the corridor, you know under those..... COLLINS: Well, I think it is one of the most absurd developments that we've had this week that Jack Straw who was actually in Canada for an international summit is supposed to have woken up one morning, slapped his forehead, said: Oh, of course it was all my idea, I'd better get on to Number Ten, and then tell everybody it was my idea to suggest this walk. Really it is the case where a Downing Street story as ever, as on so many of these cases, falls apart when you look in the detail, there are many, many inaccuracies. Just to give you another example. They said that the Prime Minister was going to walk to the north door, and there was no problem, and as agreed the Prime Minister was driven to Westminster Hall. He didn't go through the north door in front of the cameras, he went through the south door. HUMPHRYS: What do you want to happen now. Should Alistair Campbell resign in your view? COLLINS: I think our view is that this is indicative of a culture of spin, an obsession with driving out opposition and building up image rather than the public services. Alistair Campbell is the figure-head of that particular culture. Certainly he should be considering his position, but it's not enough for him to pack his bags and go. That whole culture of spin, deceit and bullying at Downing Street has got to go. HUMPHRYS: Isn't the problem from your point of view though, you may inflict a few flesh wounds on the government as the result of all this, it might be embarrassing for the government, but it doesn't do politics any good, and ultimately it doesn't do you any good either, if you're seen to be in this great mess, this great..... Now people say there are things that..real issues that we care about, the NHS, education. crime and all that, and what are you doing, you're whingeing on about what you describe yourself as some very obscure detailed allegations. COLLINS: But this of course is the reason why more than five years into a Labour government the public services are not getting better. They're getting worse because the Prime Minister spends all his time thinking about the next photo-opportunity. He doesn't do the hard grind of improving the public services and until we get him to change his attitudes and get down, knuckle down to the real work and stop worrying about what he looks like in next morning's headlines, we will never get better public services. HUMPHRYS: Tim Collins, Peter Oborne, thank you very much indeed.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.