Limiting the damage

Scott gave ministers time to build a defence - with everything they've got. By Stephen Castle and Paul Routledge are using everything they've got.
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The Independent Online
ON THE face of it, the Scott inquiry has been an exercise in political rectitude. A trial collapsed, raising serious questions about the policies and practices of the Government. Very serious allegations were made both inside and outside Parliament. National security was invoked.

In response, the Government asked a senior judge with a record of independence of thought and a reputation for strength of character to conduct a full investigation. The facts should be established, responsibilities duly allocated and lessons learned.

The investigation was thorough almost to a fault and took three years to complete, and this week, within days of completion, it is to be presented to Parliament and the public. Its findings, spread over 1,800 pages and five volumes, and including no fewer than 50 pages of recommendations, may be read and discussed in full and by all.

Yet as we know, it is not as simple as that, for this is politics. The events which prompted the Scott Inquiry occurred at the very nadir of the Government's fortunes, in the period of Sterling's unceremonious departure from the ERM, Michael Heseltine's disastrous pit closure proposals and David Mellor's sticky end. When, following the evidence of the former minister, Alan Clark, the Matrix Churchill trial collapsed in November 1992, the future of John Major's Government seemed genuinely in doubt.

Mr Major's decision to establish the inquiry bought valuable time. It could reasonably be expected that when Lord Justice Scott produced his report public anger would have subsided, the events and some of the personalities involved would seem remote (several of the ministers concerned have retired) and the issues would have been muddied by argument.

But a reckoning of some kind could scarcely be avoided: eventually there would be a report which would draw conclusions about the conduct of ministers and it would have to be published and debated. With that in mind, ministers, officials and others in Lord Justice Scott's firing line set about limiting the damage. This week will see the climax of their efforts: three years in which every available political device has been deployed. Here are a few of them:

Playing it long

Almost from the start, the scale of Sir Richard's task was a problem. The task involved the examination of about 70,000 pages of government documents and pieces of written evidence. Hearings began in May 1993 and lasted for almost exactly 12 months.

Sir Richard took evidence from about 170 witnesses over 86 days, with the judge summoning back senior MI6 officers to give further accounts in private about apparent inconsistencies, including their reported relationship with Paul Henderson, one of the businessmen involved.

The inquiry set up offices in Buckingham Gate, London, and Sir Richard cycled there daily. Conscious of potential criticism, he built in safeguards to try to avoid the possibility of a judicial review of his findings. Witnesses were sent detailed questionnaires outlining the areas of dispute. They then made written, and in some cases oral, statements to the inquiry.

Finally, those criticised were sent draft copies of the report and invited to dispute Sir Richard's findings. This to-ing and fro-ing was a gift to a civil service far from enamoured with a process which exposed its innermost workings.

Whitehall did little to speed things along. Gradually, the timetable slipped. In January 1995 - nine months after the end of the hearings - Christopher Muttukumaru, secretary to the inquiry, predicted that the final conclusions would be published at Easter or in May. That became June, then the winter.

Finally, 24 copies of the report were handed to the Government last Wednesday. This long delay, it is true, may not have been planned by the Government, but it suited in many ways.

The calculated leak

The cumbersome nature of these procedures led directly to the leaking of extracts from the draft document. Leaking is nothing new in such circumstances. When the Franks report on the causes of the Falklands War was completed, a small segment, apparently exonerating the Government of responsibility, was leaked to Sunday papers just a few days before publication. Bernard (now Sir Bernard) Ingham, then Mrs Thatcher's press secretary, was widely blamed.

This time the source of the leaking, which began last June and was renewed a week ago, was more difficult to detect. One of Sir Richard's drafts, leaked to the BBC, declared that William Waldegrave's answers to MPs were "apt to mislead", and that he had indulged in "sophistry".

While Mr Waldegrave felt the leak tarnished his reputation, there is little doubt that his immediate prospects of survival improved. He received the backing of the Prime Minister, who kept him in his Cabinet in the subsequent reshuffle. Mr Major too was mentioned in the extract, but while criticism of his role was made public it was buried beneath the publicity surrounding Mr Waldegrave.

No one directly linked either man to the leak, but the suspicion was of an attempt to blunt the impact of criticism in the final report by ensuring that, by the date of publication, the allegations seemed like stale news.

Plea of unfairness

Then there was an open, above- board and direct attempt to undermine the proceedings. After giving his evidence to Sir Richard the former Foreign Secretary, Lord Howe, began complaining about the fairness of the procedures. In its structure, the arms-to-Iraq inquiry departed from the tenets of Lord Justice Salmon's 1966 Royal Commission into public inquiries. One of Lord Salmon's "six principles" would have allowed witnesses to cross- examine those giving evidence that might affect them. Explaining his reasons for not allowing this, Sir Richard referred to a government inquiry into the Crown Agents, during which, he said, "rows and rows of seats were filled by lawyers representing all the various interests that might be affected by the evidence ... There were 27 individuals separately represented. ... The public hearings lasted for 260 days".

There was, as Robin Cook, shadow Foreign Secretary, pointed out last week, an irony about Lord Howe's objections: "John Smith [the late Labour leader] twice pressed Mr Major to make it a full tribunal with rights to cross-examination. It was the Government which turned this down. It's a bit late to complain about the procedures."

None the less the same objection surfaced in a co-ordinated manner last week in a concerted media campaign. First Lord Howe returned to the fray in last week's Dispatches on Channel 4 with his familiar criticism of the inquiry. Then on Monday Douglas Hurd, the former Foreign Secretary, and an ally of Mr Waldegrave, wrote to the Daily Express attacking the inquiry's proceedings.

The following day Mr Waldegrave proclaimed his innocence from the pages of the Daily Mail; according to one source, the interview appeared at the suggestion of the minister. Under the headline "Quit over Scott? I'm staying to tighten purse strings", Mr Waldegrave argued: "One of the things that gives one confidence is if you know you are right. And I know in my heart that I am right."

The watching brief

Although the first copies of Lord Justice Scott's final report only reached ministers last Wednesday, it would of course be wrong to imagine that the contents came as a surprise to them. Since, while the inquiry was under way, ministers and others have received a constant flow of drafts and questionnaires for their comments, Whitehall has - by collating them - had a shrewd idea for months of the totality of the report. No fewer than 18 officials have been dedicated to the task since the inquiry procedure began, five each in the Cabinet Office and Department of Trade and Industry, two each in the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence, Treasury and Attorney General's office. Government sources concede that the cost of this work, in salaries alone, easily exceeds pounds 1m.

Reassuring the troops

For months small groups of Conservative backbench MPs have been receiving discreet invitations to visit Mr Waldegrave, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, for an informal chat in his Whitehall office. The MPs, usually seen in threes, get a lengthy exposition on the prospects of the British economy. Then, as if in an afterthought, the minister will turn to the issue of the forthcoming Scott report. At this point Mr Waldegrave will explain why he believes he should survive the findings.

This tactic of gently lobbying Conservative backbenchers in small, cosy groups has also been adopted by the other main potential victim of the inquiry, Sir Nicholas Lyell, Attorney General.


is forearmed

Now at last, ministers are in possession of the first 24 copies of the report - twice as long as War and Peace but, the author says, "probably a less good read". Sir Richard had wanted to present it directly to Parliament, as he told the Independent on Sunday last week, "so everyone could have it". He was persuaded by Sir Robert Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, that government simply "could not behave like that". Sir Richard explains: "The purpose was to enable the Government to have a reaction on an informed basis to the report when they presented it to Parliament." He has, however, stipulated that there must be no photocopying and he must know the identities of all who see it.

But ministers still have an immeasurable political advantage: the Opposition will have three hours to prepare a response - and that only because of the direct intervention of Sir Richard, who wrote to the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd. The opposition's limited viewing will take place in what Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, describes as a "controlled environment" - probably a locked room in his department, with a plate of sandwiches for company. Labour is chafing at this handicap. Mr Cook said: "A document of more than 1,800 pages is equivalent to 60 hours of reading; we will not even have it for three."

Timing is everything

The Government has thought long and hard about the timing of the publication of the report, and has carefully conceived the timetable of events least likely to favour free and full Parliamentary debate at an early stage. MPs will be kept at Westminster for relatively long hours in the first half of the week, with evening votes each day until Thursday, the day of the report's appearance. That afternoon at 3.30 sharp there will be a brief statement by Mr Lang, after which Commons business will wind down. The whips calculate that by six o'clock most MPs will have disappeared to their constituencies, a factor which maylower the political temperature.

The House of Commons will not have a full debate on the report until 26 February, 11 days later, when Labour is expected to force a vote on the Government's response.

Tory whips know that because Scott deals with an historic event, it has less potential to spin out of control like other events which resulted in ministerial resignations. When David Mellor left office, for example, it was the second blast of publicity, revealing new accusations, thatpitched him over the edge of political credibility. In this case, as one minister put it, there is no real danger of a second wave; "there is no smoking bimbo".

Cracking the whips

Backbench Tories are now under strong pressure not to break ranks and not to seek a front-bench scapegoat, but to hold the line with the Government against opposition attack. Ironically Tony Blair, the Labour leader, showed the way here by sticking by his shadow minister, Harriet Harman, two weeks ago in the row over the schooling of her son. As one MP put it last week: "The politics have taken over. It will be an anti-climax because this does not resonate with my voters; I have had no letters or calls about it. John Major will make his decision and stick to it. The lesson taught by Harman and Blair is bloody well not to throw people to the wolves."

That, of course, supposes that Sir Richard's findings are not damning enough to make resignations inevitable. Mr Major, with plenty of time to weigh up the report, will consult Cabinet colleagues, and probably some senior backbenchers, about the survival of ministers.

He is keen to hold the line and so are most of his backbenchers. There was, however, just one chink in this armour last week: some change in the Cabinet might suit the purposes of his enemies within the party. One senior Conservative observed that, if a reshuffle was, after all, necessary this might be the perfect time to bring John Redwood back into the Cabinet.

Labour, too, is ready. "It is very clear that the exercise now going on is a mixture of rubbishing and a whitewash," said one pary spokesman. "They want to do a Franks on it, and our task is to ensure that they don't get away with a Franks.

"Our suspicions are that there is some strong stuff in Scott. The Government seems fairly determined to create a climate in which they can accept the relatively anodyne sections and reject the serious parts."

As for Sir Richard, he is planning a holiday with his wife. His final thoughts are these: "I hope the report will be read seriously by serious people, and proper consideration and deliberation will be given to the value of the recommendations. I hope they will all be implemented - otherwise I would not have made them."

Alan Watkins: page 19

Who knew what and when? The vital questions

1) Did the Government at any time have one policy on selling arms to Iraq that was for public consumption, and another that was for the arms companies to operate by?

2) If so, who was responsible and could this arrangement be justified in terms of the national interest in the Middle East or of economic interest?

3) Did any minister tell lies in Parliament or elsewhere about the policy or about arms sales? If so, who?

4) Did the Government fail to act promptly on information it received about the Iraqi "supergun" project? If so, why?

5) Did the Government allow businessmen to be charged or prosecuted (over Supergun, Ordtech and Matrix Churchill) for activities that had been privately condoned by officials or ministers?

6) Were there failures of communication and co-ordination between official agencies such as ministries, the law officers, the intelligence services and HM Customs? If so, why and who was responsible?

7) Was it right for ministers to issue Public Interest Immunity Certificates - so-called gagging orders - to try to withhold documents that could be useful to the defence in the Matrix Churchill trial? If not, who bears responsibility?