Boris Johnson’s attempt to smear Keir Starmer over the failure to prosecute Jimmy Savile was “entirely legitimate”, according to Kwasi Kwarteng.
The Business Secretary’s support for the prime minister over the row puts him at odds with Cabinet colleagues Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid, both of whom have distanced themselves from the PM.
Johnson sparked fury last Monday, during a debate on Sue Gray’s report into partygate, when he made the untrue claim about Starmer’s involvement in Savile escaping justice.
Referring to the Labor leader’s past role as Director of Public Prosecutions, the PM claimed he had “spent most of his time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile”.
Johnson eventually “clarified” his remarks by insisting he did not believe Starmer was personally responsible for the decision not to prosecute the notorious sex offender.
But that was too late to prevent the resignation of No. 10 policy chief Munira Mirza. In a devastating resignation letter, she said: “I believe it was wrong for you to imply this week that Keir Starmer was personally responsible for allowing Jimmy Savile to escape justice.
Several Conservative MPs have also identified the smear as one of the reasons why they have submitted letters of no confidence in the PM.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak openly criticized Johnson by saying he “wouldn’t have said” what he did, while Health Secretary Sajid Javid said Starmer deserved “respect” for the job he did as DPP.
But appearing on Trevor Phillips on Sunday on Sky News, Kwasi Kwarteng said it had been “entirely legitimate” for the prime minister to attack Starmer in the way he did.
He added: “It was perfectly reasonable to mention the fact Sir Keir apologised, on behalf of the organization he led about the fact they failed to prosecute Jimmy Savile. So the fact he apologised, suggests he does at some level bear some responsibility.”
Kwarteng added: “I’m not saying he had personal blame, he didn’t, and we’ve been very clear about that, the PM clarified that position as well. But I think in the cut and thrust of debate… bringing up something Sir Keir himself apologised for seems reasonable.”
His comments came as Johnson tried to regain the political initiative by announcing a shake-up of his Downing Street operation.
Former BBC journalist Guto Harri – who worked for the PM when he was London mayor – has been appointed the new No. 10 director of communications, while Tory MP Steve Barclay is the new Downing Street chief of staff.
The moves follow the resignation of Munira Mirza and four other No. 10 advisers in the space of 24 hours at the end of last week.