Matthew Norman: A feeble man who has betrayed his office

Regardless of Peter Goldsmith's failures, there can no longer be any doubt the system must change
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The Independent Online

It is a testament to the Attorney General's status as the most transcendently faceless public figure in a generation that the most interesting fact about him is that he went to the same school in Liverpool as John Lennon. The studious Peter Goldsmith arrived at Quarry Bank Grammar School just as the non-comformist Lennon was about to leave, and from that intersection their lives diverged. One went on to devote himself to ridiculing the British establishment, shining the halogen lamp of public scorn on its inherent hypocrisies. The other founded the Beatles.

That Lord Goldsmith has done such harm to the system he serves with no trace of rebellious intent (not once, so far as we know, has he smoked dope in the Buckingham Palace loos preparatory to receiving an honour from the Queen) is not the point. No more than ignorance is unwittingness a defence in the law of the land which the Attorney General has three times been invited to safeguard; and which, even as another Peter did to Christ at the crowing of the cock, he has thrice betrayed.

The precise details of the first betrayal remain obscure. However, according to the senior Foreign Office lawyer who resigned in protest, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq his lordship wished to obey the dictates of international law, his conscience and his erstwhile schoolmate at Quarry Bank. All he was saying, in his still unpublished initial advice about the legality of war without a second UN resolution, was give peace a chance.

Something happened to him between giving that opinion and the amended advice the Government graciously saw fit to release ... and that thing, we may safely assume, was Tony Blair. It is this column's oft-repeated conviction that Mr Blair is, in the technical sense of the term, a sociopath - a condition primarily defined by the sufferer's belief that anything he says must be true because he said it, and by incredible powers of persuasion.

Roy Jenkins trusted the PM when he told him he was passionate about electoral reform, and Clare Short swallowed a Kleenex factory of whoppers about Anglo-American post-war plans, which is why the foolish old haddock failed to resign with Robin Cook on the eve of invasion. The past decade is littered with the ruined reputations of those charmed, beguiled, bamboozled and schmoozed into accepting that Mr Blair was the pretty straight kinda guy of legend, so Goldsmith is in excellent company.

It is partly to protect individuals and the system itself from rogue leaders that sensible democracies insist on a separation of powers, to remove even the potential for conflicts of interest. The point is so obvious I'm ashamed to trot it out here, but it cannot be right to expect Lord Goldsmith to give impartial advice on something so central to the political ambitions of Tony Blair when it is solely on Tony Blair's patronage that Lord Goldsmith's career depends.

And so to the second of the three derelictions of duty, the abandonment of the long-running Serious Fraud Office investigation into BAE's alleged bribery to clinch an arms contract with Saudi Arabia. Here again, Goldsmith reversed his opinion. Shortly before Christmas he agreed with prosecutors that there was enough evidence to bring criminal charges. Two days later, after discussions with Downing Street, he informed a bemused House of Lords that the case had been dropped. Starkly stating that thousands of jobs depended on the deal was hardly an option (by that argument Pol Pot might have defended the Killing Fields, on the grounds that closing them would have put the grave diggers out of work), so he trotted out the catch-all defence for anything morally dodgy done in Britain's name, claiming it was a matter of "national security".

When an attorney general goes to parliament and comes out for grubby expediency over the rule of law, the extent of the constitutional problem becomes unavoidable. When that same A-G wilfully refuses, time and again, to recuse himself from deciding whether his boss and his boss's helpers should be prosecuted for corruption, you know you're living in a madhouse.

This third of the betrayals may be the most trivial, but it is also the least opaque. Indeed, it's so clear cut that even the Lord Chancellor felt obliged publicly to state what Goldsmith will not: that under no circumstances would the Attorney General be involved in deciding whether anyone in or close to No 10 is charged over the sale of peerages.

Just how startling an intervention this was can be gauged not only from Charlie Falconer's record of peerless sycophancy to his one-time flatmate the PM, but from the fact that as young barristers he and Goldsmith were colleagues and friends in the same chambers. Today, they find themselves linked again, by the indefensibility of their constitutional dual roles: it is just as lunatic a conflict of interest that the Lord Chancellor should sit in a Cabinet at the PM's pleasure and double up as head of the judiciary at a time when the Cabinet and the judges are close to all-out war.

What goes around comes around. If it wasn't Falconer's recommendation that won his old chum the Attorney Generalship, then it may have had something to do with - have you guessed it yet? - a donation Goldsmith made to Labour - a meagre £5,000, admittedly, but enough to wangle him a seat next to Mr Blair at a fundraising do in the mid-90s. A few years later, Goldsmith was ennobled. Soon after, despite a luminescent lack of political experience, he was handed the office he befouls today.

No one seems to think Peter Goldsmith a bad man, just a weak and malleable one caught in a system with no inbuilt mechanism to protect the feeble from the overwhelming power of an amoral, messianic premier; a system in which having once shared a flat or chambers with someone seems a far more durable bond of loyalty than anything so flaky as an oath of allegiance to the Crown.

Yet regardless of Peter Goldsmith's failures, or rather, perhaps, thanks to them, there can no longer be a shred of doubt that the system has to change. At the forefront of Gordon Brown's thinking now will be how to infuse his government, when the time comes, with a veneer of freshness and energy. This won't appeal to the red-top front pages, like the Bank of England's independence, but it would send out a ringing message that he intends to clean out the filthy stables he has inherited if he swiftly announces plans to isolate the Government's top law officers from the political process. If that were to feature in the written constitution we desperately need, so much the better. However, never again must an Attorney General come to be seen not as an arch defender of the law, but as a lethal weapon against it.