Matthew Norman: An offer you really should refuse

You would know, beyond question, that accepting this offer would guarantee the ruination of your reputation
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The Independent Online

Anyone who has reached middle age without a trust fund must have made at least one crazy employment decision on the way. I write as a man once sacked twice inside two days, first for eating a Danish salami bagel while rolling rum truffles in a swanky West End chocolate shop; and second, 19 hours later, for confusing limes with mangos after 23 minutes in my post as an accounts clerk at the Deciduous Fruits Board.

Given this history, there is no room for smugness in judging the career choices of others. Even so, I must ask in anguish why anyone in decent mental health would consent to head an inquiry into the conduct of a Labour minister.

Place yourselves in the shoes of Sir Alan Budd. There you are enjoying the magnificent wines, scintillating high-table badinage and delicious powers of patronage that go with being provost of Queen's College, Oxford. Reviewing your career as an economist, you can luxuriate in the satisfaction of having been one of Mrs Thatcher's most beloved monetarists, a leading Treasury adviser to John Major, one of the wise men guiding the Bank of England on interest rates, and more besides.

Stretching ahead is a semi-retirement spent dabbling in the odd quango and maybe donning the ermine robe, with oodles of time to indulge your twin hobbies of music and gardening. You are respected by your peers, and remain, despite a central role in advising Tessa Jowell on how to reform British gambling, a figure of blissful obscurity to the public.

Then the phone rings, and it's your old Treasury mate John Gieve, now permanent secretary at the Home Office, with a proposal. Look, old man, he says, you'll have heard about this Blunkett business. It's all rather ghastly and embarrassing, and those media reptiles are driving us round the bend ... so how do you feel about fast-tracking a little investigation into this nanny visa?

It is at this point that anyone half sane would ask if the person on the line is Noel Edmonds reviving those much-missed Gotchas, and put the phone down. For you would know, beyond question, that accepting this offer would guarantee the ruination of your reputation.

The precedents could not be clearer. The last ex-Treasury bod to examine ministerial conduct in an immigration context was Anthony Hammond in 2002. So predictable were the conclusions of his kangaroo court - namely, that neither Peter Mandelson nor anyone else had done anything dodgy regarding the Hinduja passports - that even in advance of them Hammond briefly became known as Skippy.

If Skippy Hammond QC was wounded by his descent into a figure of mirth, he never showed it. Lord Hutton, however, couldn't contain his distress about the reaction to his report into Dr David Kelly's death. With hindsight it is a mystery how anyone expected this erstwhile Diplock Judge to jeopardise the Government's survival, but when he was appointed the consensus was that here, hurrah, was a fearlessly independent judicial titan.

The day he read out his report, those of us gathered in the High Court listened in disbelief that swiftly mutated into gruesome hilarity. Pronouncing mass (as in WMD) to rhyme with farce, or possibly arse, this mighty law lord suggested nothing so much as a magistrate from a 1950s Cotswold village promoted, due to some hilarious Ealing Comedy-style confusion in Whitehall, from hearing dog licence applications to presiding over the most significant examination of government practice ever conducted. When he admitted that, bending over backwards to be fair, he couldn't entirely discount the faint possibility that John Scarlett may have been subliminally influenced in some way by Alastair Campbell's entirely admirable desire to present the strongest possible case for war, I got the giggles so badly that I had to leave the courtroom.

No wonder Brian Hutton couldn't disguise his misery at the "Lord Whitewash" headlines. After decades building his reputation as a cracking jurisprudential mind, within months he had reduced himself to a status of such buffoonery that his spiritual home was no longer the highest court in the land, but the Aussie jungle. If he agreed to be a last-minute I'm A Celeb entrant, and found himself sharing a plate of koala gonads with Janet and Huggy tomorrow, it would only increase his dignity.

The case of Lord Butler is more poignant still. Butler had made a prize chump of himself with an "investigation" into Jonathan Aitken's stay at the Paris Ritz: he confined himself to asking Aitken if he'd been naughty, and instantly accepting his word that he had not. So he had much to prove with his inquiry into the case for the invasion of Iraq.

The sad thing is that he came so close. The only trouble with his report was that he wrote it not in English, but in that mother tongue of Whitehall known as Euphemism. When Butler declared, for example, that "more weight was placed on the intelligence than it could bear", he was accusing the Prime Minister of playing loose enough with the hard facts as to equate to telling whoppers. Yet the genteel, ultra-nuanced language allowed Mr Blair to wriggle free, and Lord Butler to be portrayed, a shade unfairly, as yet another establishment stooge.

Barring a miracle, Sir Alan is about to join him. One wouldn't normally pre-empt his report, which is due next week, but since the PM has done just that by expressing his absolute confidence in the Home Secretary, I predict that what Sir Alan produces will be, at its darkest, a beige or magnolia wash. For one thing, his remit is so absurdly narrow that he cannot look into Mr Blunkett's gift to Mrs Quinn of first-class rail tickets funded by the taxpayer, along with other important allegations.

For another, even if he doesn't clear Mr Blunkett of fixing that visa, he will write in such impeccable Euphemism that those who wish to interpret it as a ringing verdict of not guilty will be able to do so. Old Whitehall hands never use a "must have" where a "might conceivably have" will do. They are masters of the conditional, high priests of the subjunctive. In Sir Alan's eyes, Mr Blunkett will have done nothing vaguely wrong. He may have been naive, he may have been ill-advised, possibly he may, on careful reflection, agree that he might have been more careful ... in proving a deadly foe of "did", Sir Alan will establish him as a darling Budd of "may".

And then, when chunks of the newspapers and any readers who think quaint old things like integrity still matter, turn on Sir Alan, as they turned on Hammond, Hutton and Butler, he will have time to consider if it was worth it. Whatever rewards were tacitly implied, if any were at all, must be weighed against the certain knowledge that the rewriting of his obituaries has begun. Alan Budd, fine economist, lover of roses and keen Wagnerian, will have gone, instantly replaced by Alan Budd, latest in a long line of government placemen-apologists.

Although he has only himself to blame, I can't help but sympathise with him for accepting such a bum job. We've all done it, as I said, and if only Sir Alan spent those 23 minutes with me at the Deciduous Fruits Board, he might have learnt how easy it is to start out as a mandarin and end up with nothing but raspberries.