Michael Gove has said Boris Johnson has nothing to apologize after the prime minister tried to use a notorious paedophile to get one-up on Labour.
The prime minister had falsely claimed that Keir Starmer failed to prosecute Jimmy Savile while director of public prosecutions – a claim rejected by those familiar with the case.
The prime minister reached for the false claim, which has been circulating for months on far-right social media channels, while he was on the ropes in parliament over his lockdown parties.
But asked on Wednesday whether the prime minister had anything to apologize for, Mr Gove said: “No.”
Appearing to defend the prime minister, the leveling-up secretary added: “I think this is a uniquely sensitive issue and it does need to be handled with care, and I listen with enormous respect to those who act for victims of the actions of a terrible, terrible criminal.
“But – and it’s not a subject that I want to dwell on because it is uniquely sensitive – it is the case that the CPS apologized for the handling of this case and what happened in 2009, and I think we should acknowledge that an apology was given at the time and respect that.”
Mr Gove added: “Keir Starmer acknowledged that mistakes had been made by the organization of which he was head, to his credit. He was very clear about those mistakes.”
Mr Johnson’s comments have been branded a disgrace by former chief prosecutors and even some of his own MPs.
Tory MP Julian Smith said on Tuesday that Mr Johnson’s “smear” against the opposition leader was “wrong and cannot be defended”, urging the prime minister to withdraw it.
He was joined overnight by veteran Tory Bob Neill, chair of the Commons Justice committee. Sir Bob said: “This suggestion is baseless and unworthy, even in the cut and thrust of political debate.
“There are plenty of reasons to attack Keith Starmer and Labor on their policies but not a false premise. Let’s at least fight out politics cleanly.”
Mr Johnson’s claim was branded “a disgrace to parliament and office of prime minister” by Nazir Afzal, a former chief Crown prosecutor for the North West on Monday.
“It’s not true. I was there. Keir Starmer had nothing to do with the decisions made. On the contrary, He supported me in bringing hundreds of child sex abusers to justice,” Mr Afzal said in a post on social media.
In 2020, fact-checking charity Full Fact also looked into the claim that Sir Keir had stopped Savile being charged in 2009 and found that it was false.