Chief Political Correspondent
Sir Richard Scott watered down his final report on the Government's handling of the arms-to-Iraq scandal after pressure from ministers whose careers were at risk.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats joined forces yesterday in an unprecedented campaign to call for the sackings of William Waldegrave, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General. On one of the key charges that Mr Waldegrave lied to MPs, Sir Richard was persuaded to change the original draft to add that Mr Waldegrave "did not intend his letters [to MPs] to be misleading and did not so regard them". Ministers yesterday used that phrase to reject Labour calls for Mr Waldegrave's resignation.
Robin Cook, leading the Labour campaign, brushed aside suggestions that Whitehall "rats" had "got at" Sir Richard. But Tory MPs privately said Sir Richard had "bent over backwards" not to make ministerial resignations inescapable.
Labour researchers worked through the night after publication on Thursday to uncover more damaging detail from the 1,800-page report. They failed to uncover any single "killer fact" but they did uncover some potentially damaging analysis.
The report contained twelve instances of behaviour by Mr Waldegrave and Sir Nicholas which earned the rebuke of Sir Richard. Sir Nicholas is criticised for five errors.
Sir Richard refers to the "duplicitous nature" of the flexibility of the guidelines, claimed by Mr Waldegrave. The judge said Mr Waldegrave deliberately failed to inform Parliament of the current state of the Government's policy on non-lethal arms sales to Iraq.
Menzies Campbell, for the Liberal Democrats, said: "It is not possible to think of any other sphere of activity in which an individual could be so criticised and still retain his job."
The original draft was amended after Sir Richard sent it out to Mr Waldegrave under the so-called "Salmond" procedures, which allow all those criticised to make representations before final publication. In intensive correspondence, Mr Waldegrave - and others - secured some changes.
Labour will switch its attack this weekend, from the two ministers, to John Major himself, for keeping the pair in office. Mr Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "If ministers try to brazen out the next 10 days to the debate, they will discredit themselves still further."
Mr Major is planning to change ministerial rules to head-off a threatened backbench rebellion and answer growing revulsion at the culture of secrecy at the heart of his Government, highlighted in the Scott report.
The Prime Minister, visiting Poole yesterday, responded to growing Tory backbench unrest by admitting the Scott report had uncovered "shortcomings" and "mistakes" in the Whitehall system, which he would be treating "very seriously".
Areas under scrutiny are understood to include:
t Curbing the freedom of Customs and Excise to bring prosecutions;
t Tightening the powers of the Attorney General;
t A new look at arms exports rules and regulations;
t Changes to parliamentary question time sessions;
t A review of the procedures for future inquiries, to increase speed of reporting.
Mr Major is also expected to order blanket secrecy over the export of arms to be scrapped.
But he will reject demands for a Freedom of Information Act, and controversial "gagging orders" allowing ministers to prevent papers being disclosed in court will continue, the President of the Board of Trade, Ian Lang, said last night.
The Independent has identified at least four Tory MPs who are discontented with the Government's answers to the Scott report. That would be enough to overturn the Government's three-vote majority in the crunch vote on 26 February.
Tory MP Rupert Allason cast doubt on the political survival of the Attorney General. Mr Allason, the MP for Torbay, said Sir Nicholas was an honourable man who had acted in good faith, but the jury was still out, following the "trenchant" criticism of his behaviour.
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