The Government's response to the Gurkha veterans' campaign for residence rights in Britain descended into farce yesterday only 24 hours after Gordon Brown appeared to have defused the row.
The actress Joanna Lumley, who is heading the campaign, renewed hostilities with the Home Office after it sent out letters to four ex-Gurkhas, including two injured in the Falklands War, telling them they had lost their fight to live in Britain.
Mr Brown and other ministers were unaware of the letters, which prompted claims of “betrayal” by the Gurkhas because the Prime Minister had reassured Ms Lumley in private talks on Wednesday.
Phil Woolas, the Immigration Minister, held an emergency session with the actress in the BBC's Westminster studio in an attempt to calm her over the letters.
There were then bizarre scenes as they held a joint Press conference in a Westminster restaurant, with Ms Lumley trying to bounce an uncomfortable-looking Mr Woolas into concessions on live television.
Eventually Ms Lumley said she felt “reassured again” after Mr Woolas explained that the letters were not “letters of rejection”.
They were test cases in a High Court battle last month lost by the Gurkhas but have been overtaken by the Government's review of its policy after last week's House of Commons defeat on the issue. The latest episode in the Gurkhas' saga was embarrassing for Mr Brown, who took personal charge of the matter, after disputes between the Home Office, Ministry of Defence and Treasury were blamed for his first Commons defeat.
Ms Lumley revealed that Downing Street telephoned her shortly before she was due to hold a Press conference yesterday afternoon to explain that it had only just heard the letters had been sent out.
She delayed her event after watching Mr Woolas give a BBC interview and then held impromptu talks with him.
“It seems the Prime Minister did not know about this,” she said. “I think he was very anxious.
“It was in contradiction to what he said yesterday.”
She said Downing Street was “not up to speed”, adding: “There seems to be a gap in communications.”
Mr Woolas insisted that immigration policy could not “be determined on a whim” but said more than 100 Gurkhas had won the right to live in Britain in the past week.
David Enright, solicitor for the Gurkhas' campaign, said: “I am not reassured. We should not be waiting years and years.”
He said the veterans were older and dying from diseases like pneumonia that would be treated easily in Britain. Conservative Party leader David Cameron said: “The left hand of this Government doesn't know what the right hand is doing.
“The Prime Minister has absolutely got to get a grip on this issue, and recognise that public opinion has spoken, Parliamentary opinion has spoken, and this issue needs to be sorted, and sorted out right now.”
Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, said: “At worst, this is a betrayal and at best it is a monumental shambles where one arm of Government does not know what the other is doing.”