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Going off half-cocked about the supergun

THE IRAQI supergun affair is not a copybook example of British intelligence and Customs surveillance operations at their best, but the full extent of their cackhandedness is only now becoming apparent.

Two days ago the Scott inquiry was told MI6 spent a year looking for the gun that Saddam Hussein intended to use in an attack on Israel. It discovered the weapon only after a tip from a businessman, David James, who suggested it should look at Sheffield Forgemasters.

Despite this, it now transpires, the operation still nearly went wrong. Because MI6 was so late in calling in Customs, the investigators found themselves under needless pressure to find the consignment before the parts were shipped.

Worse, MI6 also failed to brief the investigators on what they were looking for. Assuming, therefore, that they were looking for drugs, the Customs people arrived on the dockside with sniffer dogs.

In the interests of preventing Saddam from firing germ warfare shells at Israel, I do feel MI6 should have been more on the ball. As it continues building its prestigious office block in London, I gather it has also just requested more money from the Foreign Office for its general operations. I will be interested to see if it gets it: to stop Saddam, surely all it needed was a safe telephone line.

PHILIP MITCHELL, 56, has been the sole sweeper in Midhurst, Sussex, for 20 years. I'm glad to say he still is, although the local council's minutes deem otherwise. After mistaken reports of his death, the 10 members of the council's community care committee observed a one-minute silence as a mark of respect. The committee now needs permission to amend the minute.

A low-voltage PM

FOLLOWING my note yesterday about the oratorical differences between John Major and Sir Winston Churchill, I called on one of the few remaining public figures whose life has embraced the premierships of both men.

Lord Hailsham, the 85-year-old former Lord Chancellor, is constrained when talking about Major because his daughter-in-law, Sarah Hogg, is probably the Prime Minister's closest adviser, and his son Douglas is rising through the ministerial ranks.

However, this didn't stop him expressing the view that the Prime Minister was 'not sufficiently gifted with voltage'. This was not intended as a criticism, just a fact that puts him in the second category of leader - 'common-sensical, responsible and pragmatic' - rather than the first, 'charismatic', category occupied by Churchill.

When Hailsham walked in from his garden to greet me, he explained he had been making compost, something he had been doing for 50 years because he had never found anyone who could do it better than he. This, coupled with his attire - thick morning coat, trousers and waistcoat on a gloriously sunny day - conjured up for me the old-fashioned world that Major was trying to encapsulate with his cricket and warm beer speech last April.

Hailsham recalled Churchill asking him to make a similarly pro-European speech (without the cricketing overtones) in the Commons in 1950. 'It was my last speech in the Commons,' he told me. 'I knew my father was dying (he inherited his father's title and moved to the Lords) and I put my soul into it. Anthony Eden didn't approve of what I said, and Labour was against it. However, I still hold the same view that we are better in than out.'

To this end, Hailsham describes calls for a referendum on the Maastricht treaty as 'not only stupid but wicked'. Had he ever made this clear to Baroness Thatcher, who sits next to him in the Lords? 'If she wanted to discuss these things with me, she would do it. But I get the impression that she doesn't want a serious discussion on it,' he said.

ONE policeman who may feel under pressure as a result of the Sheehy rationalisation inquiry is Archie McConell, Special Constable on the island of Colonsay in the Hebrides. According to Country Life, he has been waiting for some action for 19 years but so far has not had to deal with a single crime.


2 July 1678 The Earl of Rochester writes to his friend Savile while undergoing treatment for syphilis: 'You will see by the address of this letter why I have not troubled you these 10 days. The truth is this is a place from whence you cannot expect much news, but here I have chosen a neat privacy to sweat in and so finish the last act of a long tedious course of Physick. If it had been put to my choice whether I would have undergone what I have suffered, or have turned Turk, notwithstanding all my zeal for the true Protestant faith, I venture my whole stock of religion had run a great hazard. I confess I wonder at that mass of Mercury that has gone down my throat in seven months, but should wonder yet more were it not for Mrs Roberts, for behold a greater than I. We have met here as mad folks do in Bedlam. What she has endured would make a damned soul fall a laughing at his lesser pains, it is so far beyond description or belief.'