Back in January 2007 around the time police were arresting Blair’s Downing Street aides over “Loans for Lordships”, Guido ran a story about a secret second unofficial email system in Downing Street used to discuss the sleazy trade in honours. The Lobby pack were very excited by this and followed it up by asking Tom Kelly the then Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman (PMOS) about it at the morning Lobby briefing on Friday, January 26. Tom Kelly explicitly denied the story:
Asked if there was any secret e-mail system in the Prime Minister’s Office, the PMOS said, as we had said last night, there was no secret e-mail system, there was full cooperation with the police, there was no e-mail as described on ITV news last night, and as we had said, the police had not asked us about any of these matters. Asked why the PMOS was now commenting on this investigation, the PMOS said this was so wrong it would have been totally misleading not to comment.
Asked if there had been any arrests of people in Downing Street, the PMOS said no. Asked if there were a separate e-mail address such as some using the letter X and some not, the PMOS said no. Asked if people had ‘Hotmail’ accounts at Downing Street, the PMOS said because of security access to such e-mails accounts was not allowed. The police had had full access to everything they wanted. The fallacy was that in someway Downing Street had not cooperated with the police, that was not true.
The following day Guido ran a follow-up disputing the Lobby briefing in no uncertain terms. Guido knew that Downing Street staffers had access to web based accounts from inside No. 10 because they were using them to leak to the blog – Guido had (to confirm authenticity) tracked the emails back to a source which matched the Internet Protocol address for Downing Street. The Lobby was divided as to whether to believe Guido’s story or the PMOS.
At the next Lobby briefing on Monday, January 29 the Lobby again questioned the PMOS on the matter at length:
Put that we had “rubbished” any idea of alternative computer networks, but the Mail on Saturday and “Guido Fawkes” website had both claimed that they had evidence of alternative email networks in No10 that linked up to the Labour Party, the PMOS said that we stood by what we said to ITN. There was only one email system at No 10.
Asked if it would be possible for someone to “hop on” using a No 10 computer onto the Labour Party network, the PMOS said again that there was only one email system at No 10.
Asked further questions about the possibility of an external server, or the possibilities of sending Labour Party emails, and did only one system allow for more than one email address, the PMOS repeated that there was only one email system in No 10. As the PMOS said on Friday, people in No. 10 could not access hotmail, gmail etc because of security reasons, and he was not aware of anyone who had more than one email address.
Asked if people could send political emails from the No. 10 account, the PMOS replied that he was not going to get into the details of the system. The claim that was put to us was that there was more than one system, and there is not. There is only one, and the police have had access to everything that went through the system.
An absolutely explicit denial that there was any access to webmail or a second email system. After this Guido seems to recall a broadcast by the BBC’s Nick Robinson – at his most patronising – rubbishing Guido’s story as a crazy conspiracy theory. Guido demanded that the PMOS correct himself at the next Lobby briefing. No correction or apology was forthcoming.
This morning Damian McBride, a former Downing Street head of communications for the PM, recalled his first day moving into No. 10:
In hushed tones, I was shown the ‘stand-alone computer’ through which No10 staff could use personal email accounts which were otherwise blocked by the Downing Street servers. “We don’t discuss this publicly,” I was told, “we don’t want people going on about ‘second Downing Street email systems’”.
Never believe anything until it is officially denied…