Conservative support for Sir Nicholas on his first appearance at the Despatch Box since publication of Sir Richard Scott's report on arms-to- Iraq had been carefully orchestrated.
Unsmiling by his side was Michael Heseltine, the only minister to have expressed reservations about the use of Public Interest Immunity Certificates in the Matrix Churchill trial. Other Cabinet members packed the Government front bench, while all questions from senior backbenchers praised Sir Nicholas's "commitment to fairness" and attacked Labour's "bogus" campaign.
Attorney General's questions runs for 15 minutes following 45 minutes of exchanges on Welsh affairs - the Bright Future document was on education in the Principality. Attendances are usually light but yesterday 200 MPs were present when Sir Nicholas got to his feet.
John Morris, his shadow, accused him of "breathtaking incompetence" and asked: "Where does the buck stop? Should he not go?"
But Sir Nicholas said the Matrix Churchill case could "not have been more fairly prosecuted" and called in aid weighty legal opinion supporting his view of the law on PIICs. "The report showed conclusively that there was no conspiracy to send innocent men to jail."
First up was Sir Wyn Roberts, a former Tory minister, who asked the Attorney to reject the "shoddy, unwarranted slur" by Labour on his integrity. Six QCs, in a letter to the Times, had reaffirmed his "total commitment to fairness". But next came Labour's Dennis Skinner who asked bluntly: "Why doesn't the Attorney General do the decent thing, like ministers used to do at one time, and resign?"
Sir Nicholas replied: "The decent thing, and Mr Skinner might not recognise it, is to give clear and careful legal advice when asked for it - and this is what I did."
Scott found he had wrongly advised ministers they had a "duty" to sign PIICs, so-called "gagging orders", to try and withhold documents in the trial of three Matrix Churchill. But Sir Nicholas told MPs: "Sir Richard Scott has made it clear that there was no conspiracy and no cover-up. He cast not the slightest doubt on my integrity. The advice that I gave was fully in accordance with the law as it then stood."
Peter Hain, Labour MP for Neath, said the issue was the Attorney General's competence. Scott's verdict was that he was "personally at fault" in failing to pass on the reservations of Mr Heseltine, then President of the Board of Trade, over signing a PIIC. "As the first law officer of the Crown and the Government's chief legal adviser, how can Sir Nicholas possibly stay in office after Scott's savage condemnation of his incompetence and the subsequent collapse in public confidence in his role?" Mr Hain asked.
With Tory MPs voicing approval, Sir Nicholas accused Mr Hain of continuing Labour's "policy of distortion" on the issue. "My integrity is unquestioned," he said, adding that his view of the law had been endorsed by a succession of legal decisions, by a series of top Queen's Counsel and, "in trenchant terms", by Lord Lloyd of Berwick, a law lord.
"The one instance where the report says that I was personally at fault rests on Sir Richard Scott's own different view of the law, with which all these others respectfully disagree."
Two other QCs, Labour's John Morris and Alex Carlile, for the Liberal Democrats, were less charitable to Sir Nicholas. He should accept the "guilty verdicts" that Scott had returned, Mr Morris said.
"Isn't it bizarre that the Attorney still had not read the documents on which he had advised many months later and that the Deputy Prime Minister's letter on a difficult matter was unread for a period of three to seven weeks? Isn't this a finding of breathtaking incompetence?"
Sir Nicholas said the letter was not unread and that the point, "contrary to the inquiry's own procedures", was never put to him. "After I had been alerted by Mr Heseltine, I took specific steps to ensure through the specially drafted PII Certificate, which was recognised by everyone in court, that the judge should look at every document."
Mr Carlile asked him to explain "what he understands to be the meaning of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility for departmental actions. If it doesn't apply to him now, when does it apply, and why?" Backbenchers thought it a sharp question. So, maybe, did Sir Nicholas. It remained unanswered.Reuse content