Was Whitehall behind Bank leak?

No-one in the media since 1997 can have any doubts about this Government's obsession with image, and the lengths to which it will go to seek control over what is written or broadcast about it. All who have worked closely with Whitehall over that period carry the scars.

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

But even battle-hardened sceptics were taken aback last week at the handling of the announcement of the departure of Sir John Gieve, currently the deputy governor of the Bank of England but in a previous life the senior civil servant in the Home Office, and before that the man in charge of one of the Treasury's most important departments.

Of itself, his decision to go early was not a surprise because he has been widely - if unofficially - blamed for failing both to spot the Northern Rock problem and to do anything effective about it. In his view, however, he 'did not manage the bank, it was not his job to regulate the bank and all he did was try to save it'.

Last Wednesday, Gieve found himself a few seats away from Chancellor Alistair Darling and his own boss, Bank of England governor Mervyn King, at one of the big showpiece events of the financial year, the Lord Mayor's banquet. Gieve knew his retirement was to be announced officially the next afternoon in a press release from the Bank that would stress how the job had changed and how he supported the new arrangements but thought it time to hand over to someone else.

Yet even as the Chancellor spoke, Gieve got a message on his BlackBerry: his departure was leading the evening news, and would no doubt be splashed over all the next day's papers. As the speeches continued, he was forced under the table to vet a rushed statement from the Bank confirming his departure. Even as he did so, others with BlackBerrys in the room were also picking up the news bulletins.

What lay behind this public humiliation of one of the country's most senior public servants? The most widely held view in the City is that the leak came from Whitehall to deflect attention from the Chancellor's admission in the speech that the economy is in serious trouble. Brutal it may be, but that's politics - and, it would seem, PR.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard

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