Matthew Norman: One expects hypocrisy, but the amateurism is unforgivable

What is so specially nauseating is that Mr Brown and his pals believed they had played a blinder. They were as cocooned from their deceit as Eden was in 1956
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The Independent Online

Strictly speaking, another tutorial on the tragicomic suppleness of Anglo-American relations with the despots of North Africa was the last thing that was urgently needed this week. They ought to be spaced out, at intervals of no less than six months, so that the stragglers at the back of the class have their memories refreshed as soon as they start to fade. Things don't work out so neatly in remedial GCSE diplomacy, however, and the lessons seem to come, like the buses of myth, in pairs.

So within days of the White House subtly repositioning President Mubarak from bestest friend in all the region to wicked tyrant, we are reminded how in British Government eyes Colonel Gadaffi made the journey in the other direction. Good manners demand that we forget the intractable alliances and enmities of old the moment they are reversed.

But it's easier to accept that Eurasia was always in alliance with Oceania and at war with Eastasia, with O'Brien pumping 500 volts through the temples.

Yet however one feels about the insta-revisionism lavished on that brace of beauties, the top-ranked North African enforcer summoned to mind by Sir Gus O'Donnell's report into the Libyan bomber's release is Captain Renard of the Casablanca police on discovering illegal gaming at Rick's. Shocked, shocked is David Cameron by Sir Gus's insights in to the Labour Government's collusion with Gadaffi to send Abdelbaset al-Megrahi home to die (albeit too languidly for British tastes). And shocked, shocked are we all, not least Sir Gus himself. This is particularly shocking. He was Cabinet Secretary then, as now, and should been vaguely aware of a policy – established by Mr Tony Blair, ramped up by Gordon Brown – best translated into technical Whitehallese by adapting Christopher Meyer's orders when he left for Washington: get far enough up the Colonel's arse to tell the piles from the polyps, in pursuance of BP's commercial interests, and stay there.

But apparently not. Somehow Gorgeous Gussie remained in blissful ignorance until the current PM asked him to take a look. What he then found was what everyone else knew to be there all along: that the British Government appointed itself as deal-broker between Libya and Edinburgh, expertly coaching the former in how to coax and cajole the latter into releasing Mr Megrahi.

Playing the commercial middle man in transactions between foreign powers doesn't always work out, as Mr Blair learned when he failed to facilitate the sale of a satellite network from his great mate Silvio Berlusconi to his other great mate Rupert Murdoch. Happily, this one sailed through when Mr Megrahi's malignant prostate proved a wondrously benign stroke of luck to a government frantic not to offend Gadaffi's sensibilities by ensuring that the convicted perpetrator of the numerically worst mass murder on British soil didn't die on British soil.

All right, you wearily tell yourself, such is the way of the world. Most of us are too old and ugly to play the ingénue over the yuksome accomodations with their stated principles to which all governments are driven by economic self-interest. Yet you needn't be shocked to smithereens to feel dirtied by this diplomatic grubbiness, because it is, at the very least, a three-shower affair. The first crack at the soap is required to deodorise the taint of Jack Straw, upwind of whom only the heavy cold-sufferer cared to be caught whenever the putrid and cack-handed nestled together beneath the New Labour duvet. Though the then Justice Secretary portrayed trade with Libya as the means of dragging that rogue state back into the sunshine of respectability, his most revealing contribution was this: "I certainly didn't talk to the PM. There is no paper trail to suggest he was involved at all."

Like victims of a house fire who instinctively save the one thing they treasure (see Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler), Mr Straw reflexively grabbed at plausible deniability. There was no paper trail because he and the gang had learned from Iraq. You don't send emails, let alone talk on the phone with minute-taking civil servants listening in. You have a quiet word in a corridor free from earwiggers. "Was there a covert, secret deal struck with Libya for oil?" asked this gifted tortologist of himself. "No there was not."

Not a bad crack at the truth by any means. Remove just five letters – the "No" at the start of the sentence, and the "not" at its end – and he was spot on. Still, at least the old grass-snake had the courtesy to slither along to the Commons to hear Mr Cameron recite Sir Gus's gist, and (however laughably) to defend himself. Fatigued by his two jaunts to Westminster since May, Gordon Brown stayed in Kirkcaldy – and for that dainful absenteeism, not to mention the sub-Clintonian legalese with which he too has distanced himself from all the polyp-hunting, lashings of body gel are indicated.

With the third of this unholy trinity, David Miliband, over-the-counter unguents lose their efficacy. Here you want the full, skin-breaking, blood-drawing body scrub, as applied to Karen Silkwood after her contaminated body sets off the radiation sensors. Mili Major was also too busy for the three-mile odyssey from Hampstead to Parliament Square on Monday, nor could he find time for Newsnight. If he had, Paxo might have asked him why, given Sir Gus's shock findings to the contrary, he denied that Mr Megrahi was released to smooth relations with Libya with an outraged: "I really reject that entirely; that is a slur on both myself and the Government." Banana Boy, pur-leeeze.

What is so specially nauseating about this fiasco is that Mr Brown and his pals clearly believed they had played a blinder by finessing the Scots to do their bidding (as if that canny operator Alex Salmond didn't know the game all along, and merrily played along). They were as cocooned from the visibility of their deceit as Eden was when he skulked behind a translucent Israeli negligee in 1956.

Centuries ago, sneakiness of the kind earned us the nickname "perfidious Albion" from the French (high praise indeed). Nauseating hypocrisy has always governed dealings with Middle East bully boys, and so long as there is oil to be drilled it always will. Seasoning the perfidy with amateur-hour incompetence on a scale unseen since Suez makes the familiar venality much harder to forgive.



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