Gordon Brown came close to endorsing the Scottish government's decision to free the Lockerbie bomber yesterday as he attempted to put an end to the controversy over the release.
After days of refusing to say whether he supported the return of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi to Libya, the Prime Minister broke his silence to insist there had been no secret deal with Colonel Gaddafi's government.
He was forced to speak out after it emerged that Libya had been reassured in February that the Prime Minister did not want to see Megrahi, who has terminal prostate cancer, die on British soil.
Last night, the Tories demanded an explanation after it emerged Mr Brown had written a personal letter to Col Gaddafi, which was handed over at a meeting between Bill Rammell, the former Foreign Office minister, and the Libyans in February. The Foreign Office said the contents related to Col Gaddafi's position as chairman of the African Union.
Mr Brown said he respected both Edinburgh's right to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds and the decision itself.
His comments were seized upon by Alex Salmond, the Scottish First Minister, as evidence of Downing Street's support for his administration's controversial move to free Megrahi.
Mr Salmond also faced embarrassment yesterday when his minority Scottish National Party administration lost a series of votes in the Holyrood Parliament over its handling of the affair.
Mr Brown began a speech on jobs yesterday with a fierce denial that he gave any assurances on Megrahi's future to Col Gaddafi. He said the final decision to release the bomber had been taken by the Scottish government with no attempt to influence them by UK ministers.
Denying the release was intended to smooth trade and oil deals with the north African state, he said: "There was never a linkage between any other issue and the Scottish government's decision about Megrahi's future."
He added: "I respect the right of Scottish ministers to make the decision and the decision. But on our part there was no conspiracy, no cover-up, no double-dealing, no deal on oil, no attempt to instruct Scottish ministers, no private assurances by me to Colonel Gaddafi."
Megrahi, the only person convicted of the bombing of PanAm flight 103 that killed 270 in 1988, received a rapturous response when he returned to Libya two weeks ago. The Libyan authorities said yesterday he was "in a bad way" and had been moved into intensive care in a Tripoli hospital.
David Cameron, the Conservative leader, ridiculed Mr Brown's insistence there had been no "double-dealing" over the release and repeated his demand for an independent inquiry. He said: "We cannot now trust the Government to give us the information about what happened in this sorry saga."
There are fears in Whitehall that the episode could strain relations with the new Obama administration, which has made no secret of its dismay over the release. Ian Kelly, a US state department spokesman, told reporters the White House strongly opposed freeing Megrahi. He said: "There was an understanding that he would serve out his sentence in Scotland."
Missing piece in the Megrahi jigsaw
Labour chiefs had earmarked this week for the first phase of Gordon Brown's efforts to revive the economy.
That plan has been wrecked by the disclosure of details of an apparently routine meeting between British and Libyan ministers in Tripoli six months ago. They suggest London was discreetly sending reassuring signals to Col Gaddafi's regime that the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, could soon be released.
Such a move appears to undermine the UK government's insistence that Megrahi's fate entirely rested in Edinburgh's hands.
The talks, on 26 February, between Bill Rammell, a Foreign Office minister at the time, and the Libyan Europe minister, Abdulati Alobidi, included discussion of a proposed deal to return Libyan prisoners in the UK. The sticking point was whether Megrahi, in jail in Scotland, could be included in the agreement.
While stressing the final decision lay with Edinburgh, the UK government was also privately shifting its opinion on the subject, a change of tack that could have been designed to soothe relations with Tripoli.
According to the Libyan account of the meeting – confirmed yesterday by David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary – Mr Rammell dropped a heavy hint that Britain believed Megrahi could soon return home.
The Libyans said they had been told in the talks that "neither the Prime Minister nor the Foreign Secretary would want Mr Megrahi to pass away in prison".
The Government has still not released a full account of what was said in the meeting, and ministers fear any fresh revelations could further ensnare the Prime Minister.Reuse content