Hunt for a body politic: David Connett at the arms inquiry savours Lord Justice Scott's liking for the chase and looks at how some central personalities react

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The Independent Online
CORNERED by television, on horseback in his best hunting pinks, Lord Justice Scott was polite but evasive on whether he found chasing the fox preferable to chasing the truth.

The unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable. In the eyes of many civil servants and ministers, Lord Justice Scott might as well be wearing his pinks every morning he sits in judgement of them at Buckingham Gate in London.

His inquiry into Her Majesty's Government's knowledge of UK arm sales to Saddam Hussein's murderous regime throughout the 1980s, until days before the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, has been enjoying a good run, especially the most recent hearings featuring Lady Thatcher and Alan Clark.

This weekend the inquiry takes a public break from pursuing the central questions of what government knew about the sale of UK defence equipment to Iraq in breach of its own guidelines.

The final two hearings last week saw Scott touch upon another raw nerve. This involves the prosecution of three businessmen from the Matrix Churchill machine tool company and whether ministers were prepared to see them jailed despite sanctioning their activities.

It is more than a year since he was appointed. On Friday he sat for the 52nd time in eight months of formal, public hearings. In January he will resume with a clutch of ministers including John Major, the Prime Minister, Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, and Lord Howe, former foreign secretary and deputy prime minister.

From the public evidence alone, Lord Justice Scott and Presiley Baxendale, QC, the inquiry counsel, have established a baleful tale of incompetence, ineptitude and impropriety.

Middle-ranking officials in Whitehall managed to overlook, forget, ignore and dismiss warning signals that British firms were fuelling Baghdad's military ambitions.

Scott then worked his way through more senior mandarins, some of whom reacted testily, blinking in wonder as though woken from slumber, to Ms Baxendale's persistent questioning.

At times the truth seems to go to ground, the politeness of cross-examination at times smothering the trail, only to re- emerge some distance off.

This was especially so when William Waldegrave gave evidence. The minister for open government maintains the guidelines were not changed and were not therefore announced to Parliament. It took evidence from Alan Clark, a former ministerial colleague, to set matters running again. He accused Mr Waldegrave of living in Wonderland,

Mr Clark took the inquiry right to the door of Downing Street. His insistence in following to the letter Lady Thatcher's own request that she be kept informed of 'all relevant decisions' meant he copied ministerial correspondence to her.

Lady Thatcher's vixenish performance kept the hounds at bay, although at some cost to her credibility. She admitted that although she was not informed officially, 'it may have been mentioned to me by one of my secretaries. I have no recollection if it was.' Sir Charles Powell, then her private secretary, filtered much of the information, deciding which to trouble her with personally. The inquiry team plans to write to him, inviting him to give his version of events. Whether the trail will have gone cold by then or simply proved a false one remains to be seen.

At times the inquiry seems ball-and-chained to documents. Presiley Baxendale, QC, the inquiry counsel, sometimes clings to them like a comfort blanket. There seems a reluctance to ask the questions that might fill gaps in the claustrophobic chronology.

Intuitive, adversarial, speculative probing, more commonly spotted in the criminal courts, sometimes seems missing from the inquiry. As one distinguished barrister, who witnessed Lady Thatcher's grilling at Ms Baxendale's hands, said: 'If you are black and facing rape charges at the Old Bailey, you are less likely to get away so comfortably with the answer 'I can't recall'.'

The judge has been accused of being politically naive. Critics say his legalistic approach ignores the well-honed custom and practice of Whitehall and Westminster, the facts of realpolitik. Fellow judges scoff at the suggestion that one of their number is wet behind the ears. No bad thing even if he is, supporters say - it took a child to point out the emperor had no clothes.

The judge brooks little criticism of his inquiry's style of evidence-gathering. His staff insist he will be judged by his finished report. That gathered in public is but the tip of the brush. Questions raised publicly are often answered privately. The intelligence services, MI5 and MI6, in particular have been allowed to give evidence in secret sessions, crucial though their evidence is. He has declined to release their evidence even in heavily edited form.

Scott's brief isn't confined to who was told what and when. He strays comfortably into areas such as the handling of intelligence within government, the responsibilities of civil servants, export licensing legislation and the accountability of customs investigators.

Questions of public probity are always to the fore. The black arts of dissembling, manipulation and evasion as practised daily by Whitehall and Westminster are undergoing the sternest scrutiny yet.

But people hoping for a blooding or a body at the end might be disappointed. Lord Justice Scott's report is unlikely to name names for fear of being accused of acting as judge and jury. He is expected to lay out the evidence inviting the public to draw their own conclusions.

His colourful hunt for the truth will resume in the New Year.

(Photographs omitted)