That memo against the Pope is no joke

Benedict XVI, his visit, and an aggressively secular mindset in Whitehall.

There is widespread confusion over the extraordinary Foreign Office "brainstorming" memo entitled "The ideal visit would see . . .", and it has caused huge diplomatic tensions between the UK and the Holy See, which have enjoyed unprecedentedly strong relations in recent years -- until now.

People think it is a joke. That is to say, that it was written as a joke. This is not surprising, given the range of suggestions, which include a form of contraception named after the Pope, the Pope opening an abortion clinic, and the Pope overseeing a homosexual wedding.

In fact, I am reliably told by a senior Whitehall source: "This was not written as a joke. It was meant to be a serious brainstorming by various people [and was] designed for a meeting. I know it is hard to believe, but it is serious."

In which case, the memo says more about the mindset of what one official calls the "aggressive secular fundamentalism" that is entrenched in the Foreign Office than it does about the papal visit, which, for all the Vatican's faults, remains a good thing.

Don't get me wrong. I deplore the sick culture of child abuse that has been unearthed in the Roman Catholic Church. And I will upset some Catholic friends by saying that I have some sympathy with the view that the Pope should show leadership, take overall responsibility and "resign" over the issue.

Even before that grotesque scandal was reported, I didn't have much time for a Pope who is into Gucci shoes and iPods.

However, much work has been put in by the British embassy in the Vatican -- and by ministers who should not be blamed -- to improve relations with the centre of a religion followed by millions. In an age when interfaith recognition is vital, that is very important work indeed.

That this memo has been setback, caused by the childish and frankly idiotic provocations of sniggering officials with too much time on their hands, is an embarrassment to Britain. Secularists should offer faiths the same freedom of thought that they hold so dear.

I will be returning to this subject.

UPDATE: A query I submitted to the Foreign Office about whether or not the document is a joke has not had a response (2 May).


James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
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Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.