The editor in chief of the Sun has claimed Michael Gove is the victim of a “smear operation” being orchestrated by people close to Nick Clegg as the row over the Queen’s views on “Brexit” escalates.
Tony Gallagher refused to say whether the Tory Justice Secretary was the source for its story claiming the monarch wants to leave the EU, and instead suggested “people close to Nick Clegg” are attempting to identify him as the leak.
The story rests on a 2011 lunch at Windsor Castle where the Queen is reported to have “let rip” at Clegg, then the Deputy Prime Minister, about the direction the EU has heading.
Gove, who was also said to have been at the event, is one of the leading voices in the Leave campaign ahead of the June referendum, while Clegg is a huge advocate to Remain.
Gallagher, who has robustly defended the story despite denials from the Palace and Clegg, went on to hint at a plot to “remove” a “leading light” in the Leave campaign.
The editor said he would “never reveal who our sources are” when questioned by ITV Political Editor, Robert Peston, over whether the tip-off stemmed from Gove.
He went on: “I think it's interesting to note that there is clearly a smear operation underway at the moment and an attempt to identify Michael Gove.
“It wouldn't take too much of a cynic to assume that part of the reason for that is the desire to remove him as a leading light in the Leave campaign.
“And I think it's worth putting into the public domain that among those circulating the idea that it is Michael Gove are people close to Nick Clegg... I think Nick Clegg has questions to answer because he's gone from being 'I don't recollect this event' to 'it's nonsense' to now being certain it's Michael Gove. So which is it? I think he has to answer that.”
Today's papers have named Gove, who is backing a Brexit, as one of the Sun's possible sources. He appears in a court circular detailing who was at the lunch. Friends of Gove have dismissed the claim.
Buckingham Palace complained to the press watchdog on Wednesday after the tabloid splashed on the claim she reportedly lambasted the direction of “European integration”. Labour has written Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood demanding an inquiry into who leaked the Queen's remarks.
Gallagher did not name who he believed was directing the Gove “smear”.
He said earlier today his team was "completely confident", its story was accurate and said the paper "knew more than we published".
On the Today programme, he said: "Two sources came to us with information about the Queen and her views on the EU. We would've been derelict in our duty of us to not put that in the paper. It's as simple as that. The fact the story is inconvenient for a number of people is not my fault. We serve our readers, not the elite."
To Peston, he suggested both Clegg and the Palace’s position shifted.
“(The Palace) and Nick Clegg had ample opportunity to deny the story and they declined to do so,” he said. “They have obviously released more robust statements once they saw the coverage the story got. But in advance they issued very careful statements which rather fell short of a full denial in my opinion.”
The device Clegg is accused of deploying called this a "non denial denial" - a term used by journalists to describe an attack on a story that does not actually refute its assertions.