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Prime minister Theresa May has been warned by a senior cabinet colleague not to sack Damian Green, her deputy, on the basis of claims by former UK police officers that he viewed legal pornographic pictures on an office computer.

David Davis, Brexit secretary and a longstanding civil liberties campaigner, has told Number 10 it would be wrong to sack Mr Green on the basis of a “wrongful attempt by former officers to do him down”, according to aides.

Mr Davis’s intervention reflects growing anger among Tory MPs about the way police have used information, allegedly gathered during a controversial raid on Mr Green’s House of Commons office in 2008, to attack the minister.

The prime minister is waiting for the conclusion of a Cabinet Office report into Mr Green’s conduct before deciding how to deal with a minister who is an old personal friend and a key player in her administration.

Mr Green was initially referred to Sue Gray, the government’s ethics watchdog, over allegations of inappropriate behaviour in 2015 and 2016 made by a female journalist, a claim described as “completely false” by the minister.

But the affair widened in recent weeks after former police officers claimed that Mr Green had watched pornography on his office computer, with a retired Scotland Yard detective claiming on Friday that “thousands” of legal pornographic images had been found.

Mr Green repeated on Friday that he never watched or downloaded porn on the computer, but former detective Neil Lewis told the BBC he was sure that the Tory MP had watched it “extensively”.

Mr Lewis’s intervention infuriated Tory MPs. Andrew Mitchell, the former government chief whip who clashed with police over the so-called “plebgate” affair, said that retired officers had no business releasing confidential material from an unrelated investigation.

“It is the misuse of entirely legal information to blacken the name of a serving cabinet minister,” he said.

Mr Davis’s intervention raises the stakes for Mrs May. Although the Brexit secretary’s friends say he has not threatened to resign, he has made it clear to Number 10 that Mrs May should not bow to be what appears to be a smear operation by former police officers.

Mr Davis was Mr Green’s boss in the Conservative home affairs team and his allies say he has “a duty of care”. “He won’t let Damian be done in by the police,” said one colleague. “DD is a superb commanding officer — he is standing up for his guy.”

But Mr Davis’s friends say that he would not oppose disciplinary action against Mr Green if he was shown to have acted inappropriately to individuals in other cases.

Senior government figures have suggested that Ms Gray’s report could be published early next week, although Mr Lewis’s intervention and the subsequent Tory backlash has made a political dilemma for Mrs May even more complicated.

The Met said that the circumstances behind the revealing of the information would be looked at by the force’s Directorate of Professional Standards, which investigates misconduct by officers, though it stressed that was “routine for cases of this nature”.

It added: “Confidential information gathered during a police inquiry should not be made public.”

The Independent Police Complaints Commission, which handles complaints against serving police officers, has no jurisdiction over Mr Lewis because he is now retired.

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