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Liberty director threatens to sue Burnham over 'tawdry smear'

When I hear the words culture secretary I reach for my lawyers...

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Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti has demanded a grovelling apology from culture secretary Andy Burnham, following a bizarre reference by the latter to "late night, handwringing, heart-melting phone calls" between Chakrabarti and David Davis, formerly Tory home affairs spokesman, latterly libertarian pin-up. This, says Chakrabarti, is innuendo and character assassination, and if Burnham doesn't come out with his hands up she'll sue.

Did Burnham perhaps forget that in addition to running Liberty, Chakrabarti is a trained barrister? And is married to another lawyer? He made his remarks in an interview for Progress magazine ("the ironically titled Progess magazine", says Chakrabarti), claiming that he found it curious that Davis, a supporter of capital punishment, was having such conversations with the Liberty boss. Davis recently resigned his post as shadow home secretary, along with his parliamentary seat, in order to fight a by-election on civil liberties issues. Chakrabarti is reported to have attempted to dissuade him from doing this, and to have been in close contact with him immediately prior to his resignation, and had worked with him in the campaign against the 42 day detention proposals.

Chakrabarti has written to Burnham, Gordon Brown and the attorney general accusing Burnham of debasing a "great office of state"* and "the vital debate about fundamental rights and freedoms in this country. Indeed you seem reluctant to engage in that debate except in this tawdry fashion."

Burnham's aides insist that his remarks had been misinterpreted, and that he had no intention of making anything other than political points. As yet, however, he has not produced the required written apology. Tricky - he boosts Davis' fight against the Big Brother State if he grovels, he boosts it if he gets sued... ®

* Just a few weeks ago the Times revealed how the appointment of Burnham as culture secretary enhanced that particular great office of state. While at Cambridge his cultural activities included membership of the Mornie Onion Society, and male-only drinking club whose initiation ceremony consisted of drinking a yard of ale with an onion floating in it, while naked or wearing only a towel. The paper quoted someone claiming to be a former student "friend" as saying: "The guy was wrecked a lot, as a lot of people were then. There were a lot of borderline alcoholics." But that's enough innuendo and character assassination - Ed.

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