David Brown, Steve Bird in Praia da Luz and Patrick Foster
Gordon Brown has been updated on the investigation into Kate and Gerry McCann by the couple’s advisers, who told him that Portuguese detectives had no proof that they killed their daughter.
The Prime Minister, who has been an influential supporter of the couple, has previously persuaded the Portuguese authorities to release details of their investigation into Madeleine’s disappearance from an Algarve holiday apartment 138 days ago.
The move comes amid reports that a Portuguese judge has ruled that the couple should not be forced to return to the Algarve to face further questioning but should instead be interviewed by police in Britain.
Mr McCann spoke to Mr Brown several times and David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, twice before he and his wife were declared official suspects by Portuguese detectives 11 days ago. All ministerial contact was severed immediately because of the sensitive nature of their legal status.
But lines of communication were reopened yesterday after the appointment of the McCanns’ new spokesman, Clarence Mitchell, a former Cabinet Office troubleshooter. Mr Mitchell resigned from his job yesterday as director of the Media Monitoring Unit at the Cabinet Office.
A McCann family source said: “Mitchell still has the key phone numbers and e-mail addresses of people in power and will continue to use them. He has attended top-level briefings at No 10 every weekday for the past two years. The McCanns do not expect help or influence to be exerted on their behalf but want to get messages to the very top that they are innocent. No details relating to the facts supporting their defence have been passed on but that may change.”
The only evidence put to the couple related to a British sniffer dog that allegedly picked up the scent of a corpse in the couple’s holiday apartment and in the car they hired 25 days after Madeleine’s disappearance.
Mrs McCann, who was interviewed for 11 hours, could not immediately explain the reaction of the dog but her legal team concluded later that the scent could have come from her contact with corpses while working as a GP.
Mr Mitchell said: “Kate and Gerry want to get the message out that they are entirely innocent and have nothing to hide. They want to clear their names so the police can get on with the job of finding their daughter.”
Mr Brown contacted Mr McCann shortly after Madeleine disappeared and had previously personally intervened after the couple became frustrated by the lack of progress in the police investigation. The then Chancellor assured the McCanns that he would do “anything he can” and the British Embassy in Lisbon put pressure on the Portuguese authorities to find more flexibility in their secrecy laws.
The judge who is now reviewing the evidence against Mr and Mrs McCann was reported yesterday to have refused to order the couple to return to Portugal for further police interviews. Leicestershire police will be sent a list of all the questions that the Portuguese authorities want asked and details of the related evidence, according to the Correio da Manhã newspaper.
Interviews could also be carried out with the seven British friends who were staying with the McCanns. Officers are reported to have complained of a “pact of silence” within the group which has made it difficult to create a timeline of events on May 3.
Sir Richard Branson, who is donating £100,000 to the McCanns’ legal fund, said yesterday that he “trusted them implicitly” and wanted to ensure they had a fair trial.
Sir Richard, who has spoken to the parents on several occasions, said: “I wouldn’t have got involved if I didn’t feel good about them. I want to make sure they have the chance for their side of the story to be fairly told if they ever go to court, particularly in Portugal where they’ve already been tried by innuendo in the media.”
He confirmed that he was in talks with other wealthy people to encourage them to contribute to a legal fund as well, and said at least one other anonymous donor was signed up already.
Who is advising Kate and Gerry McCann? British lawyers Michael Caplan, QC, an expert in international law, and Angus McBride, a solicitor who specialises in protecting the reputation of individuals subject to media or criminal investigation. They have also hired a Portuguese lawyer, Carlos Pinto de Abreu, who filed the libel action against a newspaper which said the police suspected them of involvement in their daughter’s death.
How can the couple win the battle of public opinion? Clarence Mitchell, 46, has been appointed as their official spokesman. He resigned yesterday as head of the Government’s Media Monitoring Unit and had previously been seconded to the Foreign Office to help the McCanns in the weeks after Madeleine’s disappearance.
What can Mr Mitchell do to help the McCanns? His job at the Cabinet Office has given him contacts among senior members of the Government and Civil Service. He also has extensive contacts with journalists in both Britain and Portugal and more than 20 years’ experience as a reporter.
Are the McCanns paying for his services? No. He has been employed by one of their wealthy backers and will continue to work for that person after the Madeleine case is over.