The Government yesterday launched last minute efforts to persuade waverers and dissident MPs to back it in last night's crucial vote on arms to Iraq as Baroness Thatcher rose to the defence of ministers against criticisms in the Scott report.
Cabinet ministers held individual meetings with undecided Tory backbenchers after Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, reinforced an appeal to his party to back the Government by announcing a limited review of possible changes in Whitehall procedure, as recommended by Sir Richard's report.
Flanked by the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine and William Waldegrave, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and one of the main Opposition targets over the Scott report, Mr Lang promised a review of ministerial openness in dealing with parliamentary inquiries about arms sales; greater supervision by the Attorney General's office of Customs and Excise prosecutions; improvements in the distribution of intelligence material between government departments; and a possible re- appraisal of the use by ministers of Public Interest Immunity (PII) certificates, the so-called "gagging orders" used in the Matrix Churchill trial and at the centre of the inquiry being set up.
As the nine Ulster Unionist MPs kept ministers on tenterhooks over how they would vote, Lady Thatcher took issue in the Lords with one of Sir Richard's central findings - that the 1985 guidelines on arms exports to Iran and Iraq were changed in 1988. "If there was no change in the guidelines - and there was not - then the question of deliberately misleading the House does not arise," she said.
Lady Thatcher's intervention came amid signs that calculations over last night's voting were becoming complicated by the intensive efforts to secure outline agreement between the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland in time to secure a summit between John Major and John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, tomorrow.
Government efforts to persuade the Ulster Unionists, who had already expressed concern over the findings of the Scott report, to vote with them were hindered by fears within the party that the Government was preparing to agree to a form of Northern Ireland elections which they oppose that involves treating the whole province as a single constituency.
In a formidable commons performance Robin Cook, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, appealed to Conservative MPs to vote against the Government, urging: "They should not look at tonight's vote as to whether or not it is a defeat for the Government. They should look on it as a vote which will decide the quality of the democracy in which we live."
Mr Cook said if Tories did vote against the Government "then they will demonstrate that it is not just the two ministers criticised in the Scott report who should leave office, they will convince the public outside that this is an arrogant Government that has been in power too long to remember that it is accountable, accountable to the people and the time has come when the people must turn them all out of office".
Richard Shepherd, one of the Tory backbenchers expected to rebel, said that "page after page" of the 1,800 page report "resound with criticisms of the conduct of public service". He asked what was "going to happen" to Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, and Sir David Gore Booth, Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and a senior official who Mr Shepherd said "believes that half a picture is good enough for this House".
Mr Lang again insisted the Government stood "acquitted" of the central charges levelled against it in the affair but with the its overall majority down to just two, he admitted: "Mistakes were made. There are lessons to be learned."
Mr Cook said: "This is not just a Government which does not know how to accept blame. It is a Government that knows no shame."
He added: "It was secrecy that made this scandal possible. The five volumes of the Scott report provide the firmest foundation yet of the case for a Freedom of Information Act.
Amid uproar, Mr Lang said that Labour governments in the 1960s and 1970s had sold lethal weapons including destroyers, missiles, helicopters and bombers to countries such as Iran and Argentina. He accused Mr Cook of having "systematically misled . . . the country over three years with the repeated charges that we secretly conspired to arm Saddam Hussein with lethal weapons and that we gagged the courts to suppress the evidence".
He said: "Those two very serious charges are completely rejected by the report and Mr Cook now tries vindictively and contemptibly to shift his ground to continue this odious smear campaign."
Lang concessions, page 2
How the parties stand
Liberal Democrats 25
Ulster Unionists 9
Plaid Cymru 4
Scottish Nationalists 4
UK Unionists 1
Peter Thurnham (Independent Conservative) 1
Vacancy (Staffs SE) 1
The Speaker and three Deputies 4*
Government majority 2
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