It took four hours of ITV drama to lift Westminster out of a 20-year torpor. The political establishment finally gave the Post Office Horizon scandal its full attention this past week. The public outrage triggered by Mr Bates vs The Post Office forced the government to announce plans for the mass exoneration of the sub-postmasters convicted in one of Britain’s largest miscarriages of justice.
But the campaigners’ stunning victory has been overshadowed by a week-long blame game at Westminster. “There are people on all sides of politics with questions to answer,” Kevan Jones, the Labour MP and former defence minister, who campaigned for years over the issue, told me. “These victims have gone through years of actual torture – trying to kick it around as a political advantage I think is not the right thing to do.”
The Horizon IT system was first installed in Post Offices nationwide to digitise accounting in 1999. Phantom shortfalls soon started showing up. The Post Office’s response was to launch private prosecutions against the sub-postmasters for theft, fraud and false accounting: 3,500 were accused, more than 900 were convicted and 236 were imprisoned. At least four took their own lives and dozens died before they could be cleared.
Throughout the 2010s, the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, led by Alan Bates, fought to overturn wrongful convictions and secure compensation. The High Court ruled in 2019 that the Horizon system was faulty, something the Post Office had always denied. That gave those wrongly convicted the necessary evidence to appeal their convictions but only 93 sub-postmasters have been successful so far. Meanwhile, the three main compensation schemes have been criticised for being slow and insufficient.
The public outcry in response to Mr Bates vs The Post Office – which has been watched by more than nine million viewers – broke this inertia. Successive episodes were aired on the first four days of the year while parliament was still in recess. But when MPs returned on 8 January, pressure was building on the government to act. Rishi Sunak – a Prime Minister not known for his grasp of the public mood – recognised that the government’s response must be swift and comprehensive. On Wednesday (12 January), at Prime Minister’s Questions, he announced emergency legislation to quash all the convictions.
Jones told me, “It’s been two steps forward, one step back. I think this is taking us ten steps forward.”
But the scandal swiftly descended into mudslinging between the main parties. The reason was obvious: the public was angry, all sides were implicated and no one wanted to become the scapegoat. Ed Davey, who was the minister responsible for the Post Office from 2010 to 2012, was excoriated by critics after leaked documents showed he initially refused to meet Bates in 2010. (Later that year, Davey did meet him.) A petition was set up to strip Paula Vennells, the Post Office’s chief executive from 2012 to 2019, of her CBE. She returned the honour after the petition received 1.2 million signatures, which in turn led to calls for Davey to hand back his knighthood.
The zeal with which the Tories and the right-wing press targeted Davey reflects the view that the Lib Dems often piously criticise others from the sidelines. As has been widely noted, Davey has called for 31 public figures to resign since April 2019. Hypocrisy was the charge. And that is hard to shake.
But Davey went on the offensive. He refused to apologise and blamed the Post Office for lying to successive governments. In an interview with the Guardian on Monday (8 January), Davey called for the Post Office officials who “were perpetrating this conspiracy of lies” to be held to account.
Yet the sense that Davey was to blame had become entrenched. A sub-postmistress is considering standing against him at the general election in his Kingston and Surbiton constituency (where his majority stands at 10,489). At the start of PMQs on Wednesday, the Conservatives’ in-house attack dog Lee Anderson blasted the absent Davey: “The leader of the Lib Dems should take his own advice and start by clearing his desk, clearing his diary, and clear off.” (Davey was away from the Commons caring for his disabled son.) When Davey did surface yesterday, he again expressed “regret” in an interview with ITV but refused ten times to apologise.
Lib Dem sources insist that attacks on Davey won’t reduce support for the party. “The scapegoating of the Liberal Democrats won’t wash with the public,” one senior source said. Another source said hostile Conservative MPs are motivated by Lib Dem advances in the “Blue Wall”, citing as examples Steve Brine (Winchester), John Redwood (Wokingham), Bim Afolami (Hitchin and Harpenden) and Maria Caulfield (Lewes). They also claim the issue has rarely been raised on the 70,000 or so doors the Lib Dems have knocked on already this year. The party is scrambling to draw a line under the scandal. But Davey’s involvement is poised to dog him throughout this election year. “This isn’t going away as an issue,” one source conceded.
The fact all parties are implicated might incline rival strategists to downplay their attacks. There have been 20 postal ministers over the duration of the scandal: eight from the Conservatives, eight from Labour and four from the Lib Dems. Keir Starmer has been criticised because the Crown Prosecution Service brought a handful of cases against sub-postmasters when he led the organisation. (Starmer says he wasn’t aware of the cases.) Paul Scully, the former Tory minister for London, told the Financial Times that “all three political parties had a role to play”.
When everyone is implicated, the risk is no one takes the blame. The decision to install the Horizon system was approved by both Tory and Labour governments. But for more than a decade, ministers claimed they were prevented from dealing with the consequences of that decision. This constitutes a failure of accountability and brings into question the structures which govern “arm’s-length” public bodies such as the Post Office. Jones believes parliament needs a greater role in holding these bodies to account. Labour has recommitted to creating a “Hillsborough law”, which would create a duty of candour requiring public officials to tell the truth – something the Lib Dems support.
Such a move is unlikely to heal the breakdown in trust between citizens and the state. The day after Sunak announced the exoneration scheme, the headlines shifted to the appearance of a Post Office investigator at the public inquiry. This issue will not subside soon and will be seen as yet another example of the state’s failure to protect ordinary people, with the Post Office story joining a long list of other national failures: child sex abuse and grooming gang scandals, the MPs’ expenses scandal, the Iraq War, the Grenfell Tower fire, and the Windrush scandal.
If Labour can maintain its polling lead and Starmer enters Downing Street, then responsibility for the public inquiry into the Post Office and ongoing litigation would fall to him. Like plenty of others before him, the Labour leader promises to renew faith in politics. In his New Year’s speech, he vowed to restore standards to public life. But in Westminster last week, indignity reigned. Fingers were pointed across the floor of the House of Commons, while the state system that enabled the scandal to endure for so long was buried beneath the political drama.