Leading Article: Bitter truths of Pergau scandal

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The Independent Online
RARELY has an important document had so little chance of being properly read and discussed as the Foreign Affairs Committee's report yesterday on the Pergau aid- for-arms affair. The report appeared on a day when the media would inevitably be preoccupied with the reshuffle. To make matters worse, the normally non-partisan committee split down party lines - so the report hedges on the most important issues. This is regrettable. Beneath the obfuscation lie two clear questions: did the Government use aid to sell arms to the Malaysians, and did it lie about doing so afterwards? And two clear answers: yes, and yes.

The MPs' evidence shows that the Government was using aid as a bribe to sell arms in private while claiming in public that it was not. Paradoxically, this link was made visible only because a protocol was signed between the British and Malaysian Governments that had been drafted in Kuala Lumpur without the help of the masters of the half-truth back in Whitehall. Afterwards, ministers right up to the Lady Thatcher tried to cover their tracks - in one case by sending the Malaysians, via the High Commissioner, two apparently separate letters on the same day, one about arms and the other about aid. Ministers also consistently misled Parliament about what had been done, not by telling untruths but by failing to tell whole truths.

The report therefore vindicates the bitterest accusations that have been made about the Government since the affair came out. It shows ministers to have cynically misled the public about what their policy on arms and aid really was - and more cynically still to have misled Parliament when asked to justify their actions afterwards. Only one mystery remains: how much Lady Thatcher knew.

By perversely refusing to appear before the committee, the former prime minister has avoided the most direct criticism. But she could easily speak out if she wished to clear her name. Until she does so, her conduct over the affair must remain subject to the most profound suspicion.