Leading Article: Britain's private foreign policy

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The Independent Online
Guerrilla warfare around the Scott inquiry now looks set to continue throughout the summer. An unknown sniper clearly targeted William Waldegrave by leaking allegations that the former Foreign Office minister misled MPs over secret government approval of arms sales to Saddam Hussein. Then yesterday Lord Howe duly aimed his bazooka at Sir Richard Scott, unfairly accusing him of poking his judicial nose into political matters in which judges have no competence.

Mr Waldegrave survived for now, though wounded, and Sir Richard probably only briefly wobbled as he cycled to his office to continue work on his explosive report. But this latest exchange is just the beginning of a bloody and attritional conflict, prior to the report's publication, that will do little good for the Government and less for the cause of clearing up this scandal.

The question of whether Mr Waldegrave deceived MPs with his All Souls' casuistry is almost a side show compared with the really big question: did members of the Cabinet connive to send innocent men to jail? Did they improperly prevent the presentation of official papers in the trial of Matrix Churchill executives, which would have shown that the men were supplying arms to Iraq quite legally, with the full knowledge of the intelligence services.

This is the issue that most threatens to embarrass ministers. We can therefore expect Sir Richard's preliminary conclusions on the evidence to leak out as soon as they begin to circulate to those accused. And these leaks will be the occasion for the likes of Lord Howe to direct their guns against Sir Richard in an effort to discredit him.

All this should be good sport, promising to enliven an otherwise dull summer. But it does little to help most people to decide the rights and wrongs of this confusing and complex scandal. What we need is the full report, published quickly, open to analysis and criticism, so that heads, if necessary, can roll and lessons be learnt.

In part, Sir Richard is responsible for the delay, through no greater fault than his own conscientiousness. He has been scrupulous in letting everyone he proposes to attack have a preview of his comments, so that they can petition for revisions. Mr Waldegrave will understandably be making use of this facility in an attempt to save his own political career.

Whitehall, however, has abused Sir Richard's sense of fair play by swamping him at a very late stage with tons of paper, much of it of little consequence, but some of it of such importance that it should have been submitted at the start of the inquiry. As a result, Sir Richard is repeatedly forced to delay his report, live with the leaks and quietly tolerate repeated broadsides.

It is time that he took the initiative and set strict deadlines on the submission both of new documents and comments on his draft reports. Then he and his colleagues should get their heads down and produce the final report with the utmost speed. Of course, injured parties will pick holes in it, perhaps even force a judicial review. But the public would be able at last to take an informed view, and we could begin to reform a system that allowed the Government to run a private foreign policy.