Four-and-a-half hours on the Virgin East Coast provided just the opportunity Charlotte Compton needed to type up her notes from her interview with Fergus Crichton. She knew she had to get things down while still fresh in her memory. She had very little to go on from the recording of the conversation over lunch and was going to have to rely on all that had been said when they chatted back at his flat afterwards. Two days later she was at her desk in the Scotsman office with a copy of the paper open in front of her. Her article had made a two-page spread and she smiled with satisfaction as she read it for the first time, then read it again. She took a sip of her coffee, ran her finger over the byline, and began to read it all over again.
The Scot who brought down the Foreign Secretary
There were mailboxes situated around the Doges Palace in Venice in the shape of a lion's mouth. These mailboxes were marked 'Per Denontie Segrete' (Secret Denunciations) and literally anyone who thought another citizen was up to no good could put a name on a piece of paper and slip it into the lion's mouth. Accusations were always investigated.
Back in 2012, a mild mannered civil servant called Fergus Crichton gained notoriety as the one who blew the whistle on alleged corruption by the then Foreign Secretary, Michael Hunt. As a result he was forced to resign. However, Fergus faced considerable criticism from his civil service bosses for going over their heads to the press and ended up having to take early retirement.
I met the exiled Scot, Fergus Crichton, near his Pimlico flat in London, to find out how his life had changed since he exposed that political scandal seven years ago. I came away with the distinct impression that here was someone who felt aggrieved at the way his career had ended yet was reluctant to open up and talk about the events.
He had risen to a senior position advising the Foreign Secretary, whom he described to me as 'accident prone'.
'His affairs and drug use were all hushed up, but when I discovered a paper trail leading to a dodgy overseas contract I felt I had to act – become a "whistleblower" if you like.' He told me that he could remember the killer email as if he was reading it for the first time.
'Dear Michael, I enjoyed our dinner the other evening in the House. I am sorry your friend Mr Jessop was unable to attend but am pleased to tell you that, further to our discussion, I have been able to award his company the contract for the new refinery. Best wishes, Ahmad Al-Mansour.'
He wasn't convinced his boss Sir Peter McDonald, the Permanent Under Secretary at the time, would take appropriate action so he decided to go over his head and leak the information to a friend at the BBC.
'Sir Peter told me he would have investigated the matter fully and tried to convince me that I had taken the email out of context. According to him, the bid for the contract was sound, and worthy of success even without the Foreign Secretary "putting in a word". I just wondered how many more times Michael Hunt had "put in a word" and who out there had gone on to "show their appreciation" for his support? That never really came out.'
Fergus admitted that the Foreign Secretary might have gone quietly in a mini-reshuffle a few months later, but Sir Peter would have made sure nothing of this got out in the public domain. He was the first to admit that he wasn't very good at secretly leaking documents. He had been unaware of how easy it was for the authorities to check what emails he had accessed and even what documents he had printed out or copied on the office photocopier. He had been threatened with prosecution under the Computer Misuse Act 1990 unless he accepted an offer of early retirement.
Seven years on, I still found Fergus Crichton seething from the injustice of how differently his case, and that of the Foreign Secretary, had been handled. His career was brought to a premature end while Michael Hunt was sent to the political 'sin bin' for a couple of years then rehabilitated back into the cabinet.
Fergus Crichton and Michael Hunt couldn't have had more different upbringings. Fergus was born in Edinburgh and brought up by his grandparents after his mother died. They lived in the fishing village of Newhaven, a close knit community organised around fishing – fishermen, fishwives. He went to Victoria Primary, the oldest school in Edinburgh, dating back to the 1840s after Queen Victoria's visit to Leith. It's still there today virtually unchanged. He was singled out as bright enough to sit the entrance exam for the prestigious Royal High School, one of Edinburgh's state schools that still charged small annual fees. He won a scholarship. Financial pressures led to him passing over the chance of a university place and instead he started a job at 17 with the Scottish Information Office in St Andrew's House. He was one of the first batch of entrants to the newly created Open University where he graduated in politics and international affairs.
Michael Hunt was son of Angus Hunt, a life peer and one-time Conservative cabinet minister. He spent part of his childhood in India where his father was working at the time. On the family's return to the UK, he was educated at Eton before going on to Corpus Christi College Cambridge and the College of Law. He was called to the bar at the Inner Temple and practised criminal law until he was elected to Parliament in 1983.
Fergus Crichton had been struggling coming to terms with his sexuality in the still disapproving atmosphere of Presbyterian Edinburgh when he saw an internal advert for vacancies at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. A fresh start was just what he needed. As he put it: 'It might seem cowardly but I didn’t see it that way. I just wanted to move on with my life'. That was 1977. He was to spend the next 35 years of his life quietly working his way up through the civil service ranks to the senior position he held at the time of the whistleblowing incident.
Michael Hunt became the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Employment Minister in 1984, a whip in 1985 and Minister for Consumer Affairs in 1987. He lost his seat in 1992 and embarked on a series of business roles. He returned to Parliament in 1997, but in opposition, eventually becoming Shadow Foreign Secretary. He was promoted to Cabinet in the coalition Government of 2010, first as Cabinet Office Minister and then Foreign Secretary.
Fergus had told me how his grandparents had brought him up to have a strong sense of right and wrong and the courage to stand up for what he thought was right. His grandfather had been sacked from the local paper mill for exposing cash in hand bonuses paid to foremen to keep the men in line. He had seen his whistleblowing as an act of standing in his grandfather's shoes, driven to it by the way officialdom seemed to cover up all the consequences of Michael Hunt's chaotic private life. Now he was leading a lonely life in London, cut off from everything that had mattered to him when he was at the Foreign Office. Michael Hunt had been able to return to his previous post at the Cabinet Office before standing down from Parliament in 2015 and being elevated to the peerage, as had his father before him. The final irony was that the Prime Minister asked him to chair a government taskforce on the role of an impartial Civil Service in modern government which included in its findings a protocol on 'legitimate whistleblowing'.
There was a time when political scandal led to resignations and that was an end to it. Now, disgraced politicians hang around the backbenches feeling hard done by, waiting for the right moment to be rehabilitated. Tony Blair must take his share of the blame for this. Under his government, being forced to resign from office stopped being something that ended a career and became a sort of political sin bin. Swift resignations prevented that day's scandal dominating the news, but once a suitable time had elapsed, they were allowed to come back. The repeated resurrection of Peter Mandelson helped pave the way for David Laws to return and then Liam Fox. There were those who thought Michael Hunt deserved such a second chance, but Fergus Crichton wasn't one of them.
Charlotte Compton: Assistant Editor/Features