Rishi Sunak has become the first Cabinet minister to directly criticise Boris Johnson for accusing Keir Starmer or failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile when he was Director of Public Prosecutions.
The Chancellor broke ranks with his frontbench colleagues to say he disagreed with the prime minister’s decision to aim the untrue jibe at the Labour leader.
His comments came shortly after Number 10 policy chief Munira Mirza handed in her resignation over the row.
Johnson sparked anger in the House of Commons on Monday when he said Starmer had “spent most of his time [as DPP] prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile”.
After days of standing by his remarks, despite mounting criticism from Tory MPs, the PM finally backed down earlier today.
He said: “I totally understand [Starmer] had nothing to do personally with those decisions.”
However, that was too late to prevent Mirza quitting in her role and revealing that Johnson had ignored her advice that he should apologise.
In her resignation letter, she described his comments as “an inappropriate and partisan reference to a horrendous case of child sex abuse”.
Asked about the row at a Downing Street press conference on his plans to tackle the cost of living crisis, Sunak described Mirza as “a valued colleague” who he had enjoyed working with.
On the PM’s Savile remarks, the Chancellor said: “Being honest, I wouldn’t have said it and I’m glad the prime minister has clarified what he meant.”
Sunak’s comments are at odds with the public defence of the prime minister put up by the likes of Dominic Raab and Michael Gove.
Raab had described them as “the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate”, while Gove insisted he had done nothing to apologise for.
In 2013, Starmer, as DPP, said Savile could have been prosecuted in 2009 – two years before he died – had police taken victims more seriously.
His comments followed a review of the Savile case by Alison Levitt QC, the legal adviser to the DPP.
Starmer said at the time: “I would like to take the opportunity to apologise for the shortcomings in the part played by the CPS in these cases.
“If this report and my apology are to serve their full purpose, then this must be seen as a watershed moment.”
In 2020, fact checking charity Full Fact also looked into the claim that Starmer had stopped Savile being charged in 2009.
It said Starmer was head of the CPS when the decision not to prosecute Savile was made on the grounds of “insufficient evidence”, adding: “The allegations against Savile were dealt with by local police and a reviewing lawyer for the CPS.
“A later investigation criticised the actions of both the CPS and the police in their handling of the situation.
“It did not suggest that Mr Starmer was personally involved in the decisions made.”
Savile – who is now thought to have been one of Britain’s most prolific sex offenders – died in 2011 aged 84 having never been brought to justice for his crimes.