The investigation into allegations of child sex abuse by Edward Heath has been a vexed affair from the outset.

Operation Conifer began with a publicity stunt – even Mike Veale, Wiltshire’s chief constable, is reported to have privately accepted that it was a “mistake” to begin with a press conference on camera outside Heath’s former home in Salisbury. As a result, the investigation began under a cloud, appearing at best to be marred by poor judgement and at worst to be based on a preconception of guilt.

As time went by, the police did not offer much reassurance to quell those concerns. Paul Goodman wrote, a few weeks after the ill-fated launch, about the allegation that Heath’s abuse was carried out in concert with Harvey Proctor – a suggestion that jarred with the basic fact that the two men loathed one another. By the start of this year there were leaks to the Mail on Sunday, apparently from inside the investigation, that Veale believed the claims against the former Prime Minister were “120 per cent genuine”. Shortly after, the Sunday Times revealed that the witnesses Wiltshire Police had interviewed included ‘a convicted hoaxer, a Twitter “fantasist”, and a sex offender”.

At the same time, other investigations linked to Operation Conifer also got into trouble. The allegations against Proctor ended up being dropped, after Operation Midland collapsed. ‘Nick’, the source of the extraordinary claims about Heath and Proctor, whose testimony was pre-emptively described by an investigating officer as “credible and true”, has turned out to be a fantasist. He is now being sued by Proctor and faces charges of perverting the course of justice. Exaro, the website which interviewed ‘Nick’ and reported at great length about claims of paedophile conspiracies, has closed. Lord Bramall, another victim of untrue claims by the same man, received a belated public apology from the Metropolitan Police.

It’s small wonder, then, that Veale’s investigation came to feel embattled. Last week, the Wiltshire force published its report, which had originally been planned for June. It made some eye-catching claims – not least that, had he been alive, Heath would have been interviewed under caution over seven alleged offences, of the 42 allegations reported to them.

That’s a remarkable thing to choose to announce in this way. As Ken MacDonald, former Director of Public Prosecutions, put it: “This gives entirely bogus credibility to their investigation without meaning anything in forensic terms. The bar for interview is low, in most investigations as low as the police want it to be and in the case of a dead man, virtually non- existent. They are covering their backs at the expense of a dead man.” The force also said that “no inference of guilt can be drawn from the decision to interview under caution”, but they are surely not so naive as to be unaware of how their announcement would be read and reported.

A day later, the Daily Telegraph revealed something even more troubling: the most serious allegation among those which Wiltshire claimed would merit an interview under caution, the alleged rape of an 11-year-old boy, had already been investigated and dropped by the Metropolitan Police two years earlier, something the Wiltshire report neglected to mention. The allegation was made by a convicted child abuser, who has reportedly been described as a “serial liar”.

The decision to investigate such serious claims, against Heath or anyone else, is not in question. We should be a society where nobody is treated as above the law, no matter their position in life. But the way in which Wiltshire Police have conducted themselves in public is shameful and deeply troubling. From that first press conference outside Heath’s home, through the problems with witnesses, through the convenient leak of Veale’s “120 per cent” certainty that the allegations were true, right up to the inclusion of an allegation which had already been investigated and found wanting in the final report, the conduct of Operation Conifer has shed no light on past crimes, while harming the reputations of various people and undermining the standing of the police as reasonable arbiters.

Apparently having learned nothing from his force’s mistakes, Chief Constable Veale chose to fire a parting shot in a Mail on Sunday interview yesterday. The article itself is oddly fawning (“His features, as fair and fresh as a cider apple…”, writes Simon Walters), but the implication in his words is extremely serious. Powerful people are out to get him, he suggests, and “the Establishment” is still under suspicion of organised involvement in abuse. There is no hint of realisation that criticisms of the way in which his force has behaved might be reasonable and merited – only what amounts to a suggestion that those with concerns must be motivated by some form of wickedness, seeking either to protect the powerful or to unjustly condemn victims.

As readers might imagine, given my politics, I am not a Heath fan. Indeed, when I was growing up his name was practically a swear-word in our house. His time in office was disastrous, his ensuing sulk was pathetic, and his political legacy is still troubling his country and his party today. But if we are a nation in which power and fame do not elevate a person above the law, then we should also be one in which power and fame ado not exempt a person from the protections of justice and due process.

There are many victims of abuse out there who have been ignored. There are many abusers out there who have gone unpunished. From what we’ve seen in other cases, there are some authorities which have chosen to protect abusers rather than aid victims. But the approach taken in this case has served to correct none of those failings, and has served justice to none of those who need and deserve it. The Conifer affair leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. If Heath had not been Heath, would the police have behaved in this way? And, once their findings had proved so threadbare, would they have continued to publicly attack those who criticise their behaviour? The answer seems all too clear.