Public should be told about weapons sales

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Chief Political Correspondent

The Government is prepared for an immediate vote of confidence if it is defeated in the vote on the Scott report in 10 days' time, senior Ulster Unionists disclosed last night.

The morale among Tory MPs last night was high after Ian Lang, the President of the Board of Trade, had resisted demands for the resignations of William Waldegrave, a Foreign Office minister from 1988 to 1992 and now Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General. "We have seen what Blair did to protect Harriet Harman, and we are going to do the same for them," said one minister.

"Lang turned the tables by putting Cook on the spot," said another Tory minister. Labour MPs privately said the Government may have got away with it, but they were determined to keep up the pressure.

The two ministers' careers were still on the line last night, and the Government was still facing the possibility of defeat over the report's findings. Some said the report remained an unexploded bomb.

The Ulster Unionist MPs, led by David Trimble, could hold the key to whether John Major and his Government survive the vote. Last night, there were strong signs they could vote against the Government.

Mr Trimble, who spent 90 minutes studying the report at the Department of Trade and Industry before the statement, privately told friends last night he thought the report was "very damning" and he doubted that Mr Waldegrave and Sir Nicholas could survive.

Ulster Unionist leaders said civil servants emerged with the most criticism from the report, for concealing facts, even from the Prime Minister. "It is a culture in the Government."

A leading Ulster Unionist source said: "They will have to resign. The Government has allocated two days for debate - one day for the debate on the Scott report, and the next for a possible vote of confidence."

Mr Major, who has been accused of relying too heavily on the Ulster Unionists to avoid an election, is planning a meeting on the Ulster peace process with Mr Trimble next week. It is certain he will listen to Mr Trimble's strong criticism on the Scott report before the vote.

Some Tory MPs said the report was damaging for Sir Nicholas. "It looks tedious at first, but as you read it, you realise that Sir Richard Scott is building up walls, grain of sand by grain of sand, and he is building a prison. The person in it, is Sir Nicholas Lyell," said a former Government minister.

But others rallied to the Government and one minister rubbished Sir Richard for saying Sir Nicholas was wrong to advise ministers there was a legal precedent for signing the "gagging" orders. "It is the judge who is eccentric, not Sir Nicholas Lyell," said the minister.

He was confident that the two ministers would escape censure, claiming it was a Commons convention not to give details of arms sales.

The Government is in no mood to change that convention, and in its defence, ministers quoted Peter Shore, the former Labour Cabinet minister, who said on 10 June 1974: "It has been the policy of successive governments not to reveal information on the supply of arms to specific countries."

Buying the report at HMSO in Birmingham yesterday, Paul Henderson, the former chief executive of Matrix Churchill, said: "This chapter in my life hasn't closed until today."

Phil Harris, 53, spokesman for 650 former workers at the company's Coventry factory, which closed in November 1992, said they would continue to seek compensation.

Trevor Abraham, a former director, said he was "pleased" the report had concluded the prosecution should not have been brought. "There is a feeling that maybe the whole matter was just a television sitcom called Yes Minister because no one seems to accept responsibility for all the double-speak that clearly has gone on within Whitehall."