It takes a particularly unlucky – or ham-fisted – politician to do the right thing but still emerge looking guilty. By his handling of the Megrahi affair, Gordon Brown has achieved just that.
The sheaves of documents released by the Westminster and Edinburgh governments produced no evidence of a deal, underhand or otherwise, to trade Megrahi's release for oil or anything else, yet suspicions of a cover-up abound.
The days have long passed when a declaration of innocence from the Prime Minister would be taken at face value. When Gordon Brown says, "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," the instinct of many is still to ask: "So what have you got to hide?"
Perhaps a smoking gun will emerge, but I doubt it. In all probability Mr Brown acted with due propriety throughout, and yet he still manages to look shifty.
David Cameron's self-righteous nonsense about the Prime Minister's "double-dealing" can be dismissed for the opportunist headline-grabbing that it so clearly is. Alex Salmond and his Scottish National Party administration in Edinburgh have an even stronger political incentive to try to direct public anger towards the Prime Minister in London. The idea that either Mr Salmond or his Justice Minister would have bowed to pressure from the Labour Government, or responded favourably to calls to act in the UK national interest, had they ever been made, is absurd.
Yet Mr Brown cannot evade his own share of responsibility for how things look. Why? Because he has form and nobody can be blamed for looking at the form book even if what it reveals is irrelevant in this case.
The Prime Minister has a record of trying to evade responsibility for foreign policy decisions that might be interpreted as in some way "unpatriotic", even if they are nothing of the kind. Sending David Miliband to the signing ceremony for the Lisbon Treaty and then putting his own name to the document away from the ranks of cameras is just the most high-profile example.
He also has an infuriating habit of diving for cover when things are going wrong. Once again it was the Foreign Secretary who was sent out yesterday to answer questions on the Megrahi affair, while Brown read from a prepared statement during a speech on something else. Even now we don't know whether he thought the release was right or not. Answering that question is a diplomatic nightmare, but being prime minister is about answering difficult questions not evading them.
In this newspaper Robert Fisk has made a compelling case for believing that the answer to what happened to Flight 103 over Lockerbie lies in Damascus and Tehran, not Tripoli. Whether Mr Brown has any sympathy for that view we will probably never know. If the Libyan connection was indeed tangential then whether the Prime Minister wanted Mr Megrahi to die in prison or not is of little significance by comparison.
Gordon Brown's worst offence was probably to believe he could fudge his response to Megrahi's release and get away with it. As offences go, it is pretty mild one. Yet by compounding the impression that he is a leader who lacks the courage to lead, he will pay a disproportionately high price for it.
Lance Price is a former Labour director of communications. His next book, Where Power Lies, is due to be published by Simon & Schuster next yearReuse content