Leading Article: Facing up to the Scott report

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Let this be a lesson to spin doctors. All the furious briefings by government ministers and their advisers in response to the Scott report last week have failed to stave off serious public criticism and political disquiet this weekend. Furthermore, the very nature of the Government's response may prove more damaging and incriminating for John Major and his colleagues than the Scott report itself.

Friday morning's newspapers suggested that the Government might have got off "Scott-free", thanks to a concerted effort by ministers to highlight the positive aspects of Sir Richard Scott's account and to declare their support for the two chief suspects, William Waldegrave and Sir Nicholas Lyell. But by the end of the weekend a very different story had emerged. Polls revealed that almost two-thirds of voters thought Mr Waldegrave and Sir Nicholas should resign, while eight out of 10 believed ministers had lied to Parliament. Critical remarks by Conservative backbencher Richard Shepherd, combined with the rumoured defection of his colleague Peter Thurnham, have thrown Mr Major's majority into doubt. And now that David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, has also expressed reservations, it looks as if the Government could even lose the vote on the Scott report next Monday.

Whether the Government spins or weaves, ducks or dives, it cannot avoid its failure thus far to answer the main charges. Mr Waldegrave and Sir Nicholas are condemned in the report of making unacceptable misjudgements. Mr Major, by protecting them, is conniving at allowing them to side-step the resignations they should properly offer and which he should properly accept.

Over and above ministers' individual accountability, there is also Scott's critique of the whole culture of secrecy that pervades government. Whether it be ministers concealing facts from Parliament, or civil servants failing to pass crucial information on to colleagues, this guarded and conspiratorial method of administering government leads to violations of democracy, absurd incompetence and, very nearly, miscarriages of justice. Mr Major must acknowledge the full weight of Sir Richard's criticisms and present reforms to open up government, enabling both Parliament and the public to hold the executive to account.

By reacting dismissively and arrogantly to the Scott report, Mr Major and his ministers have dug the Government a deeper hole than might otherwise have been the case. Public opinion is too astute to be bamboozled by such blatant avoidance of the issues. By retaining in his cabinet two men in whom the public has no confidence, Mr Major is persuading voters that Conservative ministers are, indeed, as unaccountable as sceptics suspect them of being.

And by dodging the need for reform and effectively endorsing existing practices in which MPs are regularly told half-truths by ministers, Mr Major is inflicting further damage on the public's fragile faith in the integrity of politicians.

Mr Major should reflect carefully on his strategy for the debate on the Scott report in Parliament next week. To repeat last week's pretence - that Scott vindicates the Government - would be a grave error for his own political future as well as for the country. He needs to prove that he and his ministers are accountable, and that they can be trusted to walk when they should.