Mike Veale slams Keith Vaz for intervening in Operation Conifer’s probe into Edward Heath
• Mike Veale brands Keith Vaz’s intervention as ‘highly unusual’ and ‘highly inappropriate’
• Chief constable admits: I under-estimated pressure that would result from probe into ex-PM
• Top cop was warned bluntly that he could lose his job for investigating Ted Heath
By Mark Watts
Wiltshire Police chief constable Mike Veale slated Labour MP Keith Vaz for attempting to interfere with his force’s investigation into Sir Edward Heath.
In an exclusive interview with me, Veale branded as “highly inappropriate” Vaz’s intervention in ‘Operation Conifer’, Wiltshire Police’s two-year national investigation into allegations against the former prime minister of child sexual abuse.
Vaz wrote, as chairman of the House of Commons home affairs committee, to Veale to demand to know why he was investigating Heath. He was later forced to resign from the role after the Sunday Mirror revealed that the married father-of-two had paid for the services of two male escorts for sex.
Veale told me: “Any influence from any politician of any denomination is highly unusual, highly inappropriate.”
A summary report of Operation Conifer confirmed on Thursday, as I revealed last month, that police concluded that they would want to interview Heath under caution if he were alive.
Veale told journalists at a media briefing that he delayed publication of the summary report to avoid a clash with the Conservative party conference, which ended on Wednesday.
The summary report also confirmed that police would have wanted to interview Heath in relation to seven men and 10 alleged offences. These included rape and indecent assault of an 11-year-old during a “paid sexual encounter”, six indecent assaults of boys under 16, and two indecent assaults of adult men.
Police assessed that another two witnesses fell just short of the threshold to warrant questioning Heath, and they would not have proceeded with allegations from a further 17 complainants or 10 third parties.
As I reported previously, Operation Conifer did not reach any conclusion about whether Heath was guilty.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), via ‘Operation Hydrant’, which co-ordinates investigations into allegations against prominent people of child sexual abuse, asked Wiltshire Police, to lead the Heath investigation on behalf of 14 forces.
Nine months into Operation Conifer, which was launched in August 2015, Vaz sent a letter to Veale about the highly sensitive investigation.
Veale recalled: “I think what he was saying at that time was, ‘I want to know the operational detail and reasons for investigating Sir Edward Heath.’
“‘The man is dead,’ is probably the best way to summarise it.”
Asked how he responded, Veale said: “Something along the lines of, ‘We’re going to continue to do the right thing. And I’m going to make decisions because I am an operationally independent chief constable and any influence from any politician of any denomination is highly unusual, highly inappropriate, and would be resisted at all costs.’ Not sure I said those exact words, but.”
And Veale insisted that he would never buckle to private or public pressure over an investigation.
He said: “I wouldn’t allow anybody to either deliberately, mischievously, or in a sinister way, put any pressure on me. Because doing the right thing is far too important.
“But moreover – this is the really biggy for me – it is important that chief constables have absolute operational independence.
“So in such a highly-charged, politically-sensitive investigation, you need to be clear, as a chief constable, where operational independence starts and finishes, and so people know exactly that line.”
He continued: “Someone told me very early on in this investigation, and I don’t want to be over dramatic about this, that, ‘You do realise, Mike, you could lose your job over this.’
“And my response was, ‘So be it. But I will continue to do the right thing.’”
Vaz has not responded to a request for comment.
Friends and former colleagues of Heath, who died in 2005, insist that the ex-PM is innocent and have attacked Veale over what they describe as a “pointless” investigation.
Veale admitted that he had under-estimated the pressure that he would face over the investigation.
He said: “I knew that it was an investigation that would be under the most immense scrutiny and comment, but I think I under-estimated the amount of scrutiny, and the challenge, and the complexities, and the political sensitivities.”
Did he feel bruised by the experience? “Of course, on occasions, you feel a little bit beleaguered because we decided from a very early stage that we would not engage, or indulge, in tit-for-tat public statements about the rights and wrongs of the things that were being said in the public domain.
“And I guess, on occasions, that approach was frustrating.
“But ultimately I can look at you right in the eye and say we have operated with utter dignity, utter respect, we’ve maintained an absolute integrity in what we’ve done and what we’ve said, how we operated and how we’ve investigated.”
Having upset the ‘great and the good’ with his investigation, how long does he expect to remain in his job? “That’s a great question,” he said.
But he did not answer it.
Colleagues of Veale describe him as a principled police officer who has shown a resolute belief in operational independence not only by what he says, but by what he does.
One told me that Veale and his team had a practice-run to prepare for Thursday’s televised media briefing on the publication of Operation Conifer’s summary report.
I asked Veale which was tougher – the dummy run or the real thing. “The questions were more difficult in the dummy run, but the pressure was more intense in Thursday’s one,” he said.
The amount of time that he has spent on Operation Conifer had been “huge”. He said that in the last month, “as the intensity increased”, it has taken about 60 per cent of his time.
Operation Conifer has left him feeling exhausted.
“I’m having a week away with my wife and son in Spain and Portugal at the end of the month.”
He added: “I just need to get away, to be honest.”
Mark Watts (@MarkWatts_1) is the co-ordinator of the FOIA Centre, where this article also appears, and former editor-in-chief of Exaro. A shorter version of this article also appeared in the Sunday Mirror tonight. Part 2 of Mike Veale’s interview with Mark Watts will run next week.