Clare Short must be prosecuted if the Official Secrets Act is to have any meaning

Neither Ms Gun nor Ms Short set out to compromise any agent. But they have made life harder for their handlers
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Tony Blair should now be feeling grateful to Clare Short. He is fortunate that her conscience has such a slow fuse. Suppose she had resigned with Robin Cook on the eve of the Iraq war, insisting that she had proof of Mr Blair's contempt for the UN. He had been responsible for bugging Kofi Annan's office. At the very least, the revolt in the Labour Party would have been much larger, forcing Mr Blair to rely even more heavily on Tory MPs to win his war votes in the Commons. It is also possible that he would have been overthrown.

This helps to explain why Miss Short has so few allies, even on the anti-war left. A lot of them regard her as unreliable and self-indulgent, always ready to use the dictates of her conscience to justify muddled thinking. Some lefties also believe that her latest intervention actually helped the Government by distracting attention from the Attorney General's difficulties over the Gun case.

Here, they may be mistaken. It is true that Lord Goldsmith would be relieved if Miss Short kept him out of the headlines. The Attorney General is an embarrassed man. He did not rise to legal eminence without demonstrating considerable powers of lucidity. Last week, they were absent. Lord Goldsmith turned into Lord Gobbledegook. This was the best he could do in the House of Lords: "The evidential deficiency related to the prosecution's inability within the current statutory framework to disprove the defence raised on the particular facts of the case." That does not sound like a distinguished QC; more like a blend of Neil Kinnock and John Prescott. Peter Goldsmith would not have bumbled and stumbled unless he was unhappy with what he was saying.

Some have speculated as to the origins of this unhappiness. Had Katharine Gun been prosecuted, her counsel would have argued that she was exposing illegal activities in preparation for an illegal war. There would have been demands to see not only the AG's opinion, which stated that the war was legal, but also the briefs on which it was based. Even if the judge had brushed aside any such requests, there would have been a further airing to two rumours. The first is that Lord Goldsmith's opinion was at variance with some of the briefings he had received. The second, that he opined as he did because he felt under pressure to help the Prime Minister out of a deep hole.

Peter Goldsmith was never an MP. He owes his position and his peerage to his old friend Tony Blair. International law is a nebulous area, with scope for subjective judgement. But there was nothing nebulous about Tony Blair's position on the eve of the war. If the AG had ruled against the Iraq operation, the Government's foreign policy would have been destroyed and with it, the PM's position.

In adversity, Mr Blair's self-righteousness takes on a religious fervour. He has great magnetism and formidable powers of persuasion. Did this sway Lord Goldsmith more than it should have done?

Few previous Attorneys General have had so little political experience. Yet none of them was ever called upon to give an opinion with such momentous political consequences. Partly because international law was less regarded in previous decades, Lord Goldsmith's predecessors never found themselves in a position where their verdicts could break a Government. If Peter Goldsmith had decided to give his client and friend the benefit of the doubt, rather than cripple his Premiership, who could blame him? But last week, he did not have the demeanour of a man with an iron confidence in his own decision.

Not that it should matter. International law, which is an oxymoron, should not have been a determining factor in the Government's planning for war. National law has a reality. Over the millennia, it has been codified and documented even in quite primitive societies. But international law consists solely of politicised lawyers' attempts to claim that general principles and indeed a code of law can be extrapolated from a few treaties and international agreements.

There is nothing in British law which prevents a government from making war if it judges that this is in the national interest. Unfortunately for Mr Blair, that would not have been good enough for the Labour Party. Nor for a large section of the British public, which is why Clare Short's left-wing critics are being unnecessarily pessimistic. Far from distracting attention from the Gun case, Clare Short has given the issue further momentum. She has also inflicted lasting damage on the Government by alienating its high-minded supporters. There are millions of people who voted Labour because they believed that Tony Blair himself was a high-minded fellow who embodied their values and principles. As the years passed a lot of them began to wonder whether this was true. In many cases, Iraq strained their loyalties; a strain redoubled by the failure to find WMD and the realisation that the Government had told lies.

Now comes Clare Short's revelation. On one point, we can be certain. None of Mr Blair's high-minded supporters voted for him because they were praying for a Labour government that would spy on Kofi Annan.

It is always enjoyable to gloat over the agonisings of the high-minded, especially when Tony Blair's moralising is being shown up for the cant it always was. In this case, however, enjoyment should be tempered by caution. It is not just Mr Blair's hypocrisy that is being exposed. So are the security services. As a matter of course, the secret services have provided all Governments with information that they need. For years, MI6 would report on the Bundesbank's deliberations, to try to give the Treasury advance notice of its plans for interest rates. MI6 also informed Tony Blair that in private, Jacques Chirac would express loathing for him (not that this prevented the recent entente; cynic shall speak unto cynic).

Any government will interest itself in Security Council resolutions. Frequently, it will want to influence them. So the more knowledge it has, the better. Clare Short has created enduring difficulties for the UK's UN diplomacy. She has also made life awkward for British intelligence. Intelligence officers are constantly trying to recruit informants in dangerous parts of the world. Some of these agents will be brave men; others, venal ones. Whatever their motives, most of them will have some sense of self-preservation. They are bound to be deterred from working for a secret organisation that cannot protect its secrets.

Of course, neither Ms Gun nor Ms Short set out to compromise any agent. But they have made life harder for those who are trying to run agents. It is unfortunate that Ms Gun could not have been successfully prosecuted.

As for Ms Short, there has rarely been a more blatant breach of the Officials Secrets Act than the one which she has now committed. Yesterday, on the Jonathan Dimbleby programme, she produced a letter from the Cabinet Secretary, Andrew Turnbull, which seemed to threaten her with prosecution. If she is not prosecuted, that Act is a dead letter.