Senior Labour figures believe leaks of the draft findings of the Scott inquiry accusing a Cabinet minister of misleading Parliament are part of a Government-inspired damage limitation exercise.
The Prime Minister faced renewed pressure from Robin Cook, Labour's Shadow Foreign Secretary, for the resignation of William Waldegrave, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, following an extensive leak of the draft report by Lord Justice Scott, who had carried out the investigation into allegations of a ministerial cover-up in the arms-to-Iraq affair.
But Labour believes the leaks are part of a carefully orchestrated campaign to lower the public's estimation of the Scott inquiry report, before it is published on 15 February. Mr Cook said last night that there had been a campaign of vilification against Lord Justice Scott.
Downing Street said last night the Government would not be conducting a leaks inquiry because the report was the property of Lord Justice Scott.
The Government is due to receive the final draft of the report on Wednesday, and questions about Mr Waldegrave's future were raised in a lengthy extract leaked yesterday in the Sunday Times. However, the leaked 11 pages were of an early draft, copies of which circulated last year, and were reported widely at the time.
Labour suspect that ministers wish to discount any damage to Mr Waldegrave before the final report is published. Since the draft was issued, Mr Waldegrave has had the opportunity to correct any factual errors. Mr Major is said by Whitehall insiders to be determined not to sack his ministers, unless the report is so damning that their position becomes untenable. Government sources said that there was strong optimism in Downing Street that the report would not be as damaging as was feared.
The Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, who allowed a prosecution to go ahead against directors of Matrix Churchill, although one was working for MI6, is expected to be criticised. "He has extremely high integrity. He will go if he comes out of it badly," said a ministerial source. "William is likely to fight if he is criticised but the truth is no-one really knows, because we haven't seen the final version yet," the source added.
Robin Cook said it had been revealed that Mr Waldegrave had signed letters more than a dozen times assuring MPs there had been no change of policy on arms to Iraq, which he knew to be inaccurate.
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