Not playing fair can mean giving your parliamentary opponents an open goal

Click to follow

The Conservative attempts to make life difficult for me over the Scott report on arms to Iraq backfired on them, gratifyingly. Their central problem was that all the rest of Britain regarded it as grotesque to let me have only three hours of prior access to a five-volume report with thousands of pages that had been two years in preparation.

Predictably, we turned that public sense of injustice and unfairness to our advantage. Among the more petty restrictions imposed on my access was a ban on mobile phones in case I communicated with the outside world.

So we arranged a formal ceremony in which I surrendered my mobile to an aide before going into the building, which every television bulletin recycled for the next three hours highlighting how the Government was being unreasonable. The imbalance this time is not so great. The Hutton report will be much shorter, and it is perfectly feasible for a competent reader could finish in six hours, although he may need the Cabinet Office to maintain a steady supply of caffeine.

An even bigger difference is that the Government had several weeks of access to the key passages of the Scott report, which had been circulated long in advance to the relevant witnesses. This time, Lord Hutton has sensibly limited the Government's prior access to 24 hours, which reduces the scope for preparation of the kind of mischievous distortion the Conservatives tried on the media over Scott.

Yet is it wise of the Government to give any less access to the Opposition than they have themselves?

The contest between the immense Whitehall machine and its parliamentary Opposition always has something of the character of Goliath and David, and, as we proved at the time of the Scott report, anything that shows Whitehall is not playing fair can only increase public sympathy with the underdog.

It could be a smart move for Goliath to announce that he is going to fight fair and give his opponents the same time to prepare.

The worry of No 10, of course, is that if Michael Howard sees the report the day before he will brief journalists. In truth, if he were foolish enough to leak the contents to the media, the rumpus and accusations of dishonourable conduct would bury any controversy over Hutton.

The price for Mr Howard of privileged access to the Hutton text would be 24 hours of purdah in which he would be silenced from comment to the media.

Instead, he will now make a high-profile entrance to the Cabinet Office on the morning of publication, protesting about the unreasonable behaviour of ministers, and that clip will be the first item on every breakfast bulletin.

The root problem of handing the Opposition a grievance is that it presents the Government as defensive. Far better for No 10 to appear confident enough in their case to give their opponents similar access time.