A mole hunt for the source of a series of embarrassing Home Office leaks led to Thursday’s arrest of Damian Green, the shadow immigration minister.

Government efforts to unearth errant officials who may be passing on internal memos and other information to their political rivals are fairly standard practice.

But the culmination of this particular inquiry was an unprecedented police action with serious constitutional implications that has already triggered a big political row.

The Tories identified four stories that led to the arrest of their front-bench spokesman and searches of his London and Kent constituency homes and offices, by a squad of counter-terrorist officers.

The newspaper reports were all damaging for the government and all confidential Home Office material. The reports cited by the Conservatives as connected to Mr Green’s arrest were:

● A Daily Mail story last November about a Home Office memorandum showing that Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, had been warned four months previously that thousands of illegal immigrants had been cleared to work in sensitive Whitehall security jobs;

● A Sunday Telegraph story in February revealing a letter to Liam Byrne, then a Home Office minister, showing he was informed about an illegal Brazilian immigrant who was working as a cleaner in parliament;

● A Sunday Times story in April on a secret list of Labour MPs thought likely to rebel over government plans to allow terror suspects to be detained for up to 42 days without charge;

● Reports in various national newspapers in September of a warning from Ms Smith to Gordon Brown that the recession would lead to an increase in crime.

Sir David Normington, the permanent secretary at the Home Office instigated a hunt for the source of the leaked information that led to a junior official being suspended from work. According to Whitehall sources, Sir David decided to call in the police, which led to the official being arrested 10 days ago – and to Thursday’s move against Mr Green. The police action sent shockwaves round Westminster on Thursday night, with a stunned Conservative party rallying to Mr Green’s side and insisting his actions in relation to the leaked information had been “manifestly in the public interest”. The front-bench MP, who was later released on bail, denies any wrongdoing.

One immediate question raised by the police action is where the public interest lies in relation to sensitive internal government documents – an issue still being tested under Freedom of Information legislation.

The decision to use a common-law offence of “conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office and aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in a public office” as a basis for arresting a senior politician, and raiding his Commons office, could act as a significant deterrent to MPs putting leaked information in the public domain. But the government argues that leaks can damage its ability to run the country effectively, inhibiting the open discussion of issues.

The police action also has political repercussions, with David Cameron on Thursday night hitting out via aides at the “Stalinesque” move.

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