“You’re not Sherlock Holmes”: MPs question Tom Watson’s role in Brittan investigation

The Home Affairs select committee grilled the deputy Labour leader about his part in pursuing the Lord Brittan rape allegation.

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“Paedophile protector!” yelled a man outside the Home Affairs select committee room as its chairman, Keith Vaz MP, pushed past the crowd flooding the committee corridor. An unpleasant tension hung in the air throughout the gruelling four-hour hearing that followed.

In an investigation into the late Leon Brittan, the former Home Secretary and Conservative peer, MPs questioned the Labour MP involved in the proceedings, Tom Watson – as well as senior police officers and prosecutors – about their conduct in relation to a rape allegation against Brittan, for which no charges were brought.

But the question at the heart of the hearing was how far Watson’s actions influenced the police.

The recently elected deputy Labour leader became a conduit for the alleged victim in this case, referred to as “Jane” – among hundreds of other alleged victims who came to him – and the police.

Publicity he drummed up around the allegation, and the letter he wrote to the director of public prosecutions calling for a review after the case was dropped, have brought Watson’s role into question. He has variously been characterised as a voice for the vulnerable by his supporters and a “fantasist” by his detractors.

Giving evidence, Detective Chief Inspector Paul Settle, who headed the original investigation, didn’t do much to help Watson’s reputation. He slammed Labour’s deputy leader for what he saw as a “betrayal” of their working relationship; Watson sent the letter calling to reopen the investigation without consulting him. Settle – who had been briefing Watson on the case – said the MP had been “very supportive” until the letter.

“I am extremely disappointed . . . rather shocked. I saw it as a betrayal, to be perfectly honest.” said Settle. “I saw it as a very low blow . . . I felt that it undermined our investigation.”

He added: “It confused matters considerably – distracted us, shook confidence within the team . . . undermined us.”

He revealed to the committee his warning that pursuing the case – which “fell at the first hurdle” regarding evidence – would have been a “baseless witchhunt”.

Tom Watson himself was asked by the committee about the wisdom and motivations of his involvement in the case – and in those of other alleged victims. “Is that really your job? You’re not Sherlock Holmes,” Vaz reminded him.

“You are a member of parliament, not a police officer,” Victoria Atkins MP added.

Other attacks included Watson’s “political interest” in being involved in the story, and a description of him as a “fantasist who out of the blue takes up allegations” that have no evidential basis.

Although denying all of these accusations, Watson apologised for calling Brittan “close to evil”.

“I do regret using that emotive language – I shouldn’t have done and I am sincerely sorry for repeating it,” he said. “I’m very sorry for the distress caused and I am very sorry for her [Lady Brittan’s] wider family. I know they are very angry and they clearly loved Leon Brittan very much and they are angry on behalf of their family member and I am very sorry.”

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.