Major faces 100 accusations over arms-to-Iraq affair

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The Independent Online
MPs will today debate Sir Richard Scott's report on arms-to-Iraq, which levels more than 100 criticisms at government ministers and their senior officials, casting serious doubt on Tory claims in Parliament that the 1,800-page document gives them a clean bill of health.

A detailed examination of the report by the Independent reveals that, far from clearing the Government of wrong-doing, Scott finds against it on least 100 occasions, adding to the pressure on ministers as they try to persuade Conservative MPs not to break ranks when they vote on the report at 10pm tonight.

Two Tory MPs, Quentin Davies and Rupert Allason, yesterday toughened their criticism of the Government and appeared set to vote with the opposition. Along with Peter Thurnham, who last week deserted the Tories to sit as an independent MP over the issue, and Richard Shepherd, who has declared his willingness to vote against the Government, there are enough Tory rebels to defeat John Major by one vote - if all nine Ulster Unionists vote with the opposition.

Yesterday the Unionists' leader, David Trimble, would not say how his MPs would vote, saying all options were open. The UUP whip, Martin Smyth, said: "No-one can rely on our support willy-nilly. We will take our decision as a party for the good of the country and Northern Ireland".

Ian Paisley's three Democratic Unionist MPs have said they will abstain.

The outcome of tonight's vote could hinge on Tory "sleepers" who have not gone public with doubts about the report.

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, appealed to them in the Sunday Telegraph: "I know ... that for every one of you who has expressed concern in public, there are many more who believe privately that what was revealed in the Scott report is unacceptable and even more so the Government's response to it.

"Surely there must be some Conservatives left who believe sufficiently in Parliament to join us in voting against this arrogant Government."

The Independent's trawl through the report disproves assertions made by Mr Major and Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, that Sir Richard did not accuse them of misleading Parliament. They claimed it found they gave accurate answers to Parliamentary Questions and did not change the rules covering exports to Iraq.

The Independent's investigation shows the Government's interpretation was selective. Taking the report as a whole, which is how Sir Richard asked it should read, the 100 criticisms (published in detail on page 3) give a fuller picture of Government policy towards Iraq and the handling of the Supergun and Matrix Churchill cases.

It is doubtful, given the length of the report and Sir Richard's failure to produce an executive summary, that many of those MPs who gather this afternoon to debate and vote on his work, will have read the whole document. Most will have been served selected extracts by their party press machines.

Tory MPs have been fed a line that there was "no conspiracy, no cover- up", a phrase that appears nowhere in the report. Sir Richard last week rebuked ministers for taking out of context his apparent acceptance of the phrase at his post-publication news conference. Sir Richard's complaint is endorsed by detailed examination of the report.

Meanwhile, tonight's vote has become complicated by urgent attempts of Mr Major to restore the momentum of the Irish peace process, which were focused over the weekend on finalising an Anglo-Irish government summit this week.

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said it would be a "tragedy" if deals were done to save a Commons vote. He said: "The great jewel in John Major's crown has been the achievement of peace in Ireland. If that is now to be dragged back into politics, if it has come to the matter of underhand deals between the Government and the Unionists in order to be able to survive rather than to bring peace about, that will not only be a sadness, that will be a tragedy."

Quentin Davies, Tory MP for Stamford and Spalding, said he could not support the Government in Monday's vote "in the current circumstances". He said he "felt the sickening realisation that I was probably going to vote against the Government" a full week ago.

In the Sunday Express, he concentrated his fire on Mr Waldegrave, concluding: "No one can be accountable to a body, get away with misleading that body and remain meaningfully accountable to it.

"Greater issues - far greater issues - are at stake here than the discomfiture of individuals or even the fate of governments. They are the integrity of our public life and the integrity of our constitution."

Meanwhile, Rupert Allason, Tory MP for Torbay, said in relation to Attorney- General Sir Nicholas Lyell's advice to ministers on the Matrix Churchill trial: "There was a conspiracy - that was absolutely dreadful."

The former Tory prime minister, Sir Edward Heath, said he would back the Government.

Mr Major suffered a new blow yesterday with allegations in the Sunday Times of a secret deal to give favoured treatment to a Tory MP who had faced bankruptcy, to save the Government's tiny majority.

Roy Thomason, MP for Bromsgrove, did not deny he could have been declared bankrupt last November if he had not been a Tory MP. But he said he had no knowledge of a deal between Tory figures and the banks to save him.