Leading Article: Spies, helicopters and high politics

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WHEN THE newspaper that Downing Street takes really seriously, the Sun, uncharacteristically devoted four pages to Sierra Leone yesterday it didn't take long for the Prime Minister to decide that he needed to stamp his authority on events. Mr Blair tried to dismiss the controversy over the role played by British officials in the coup in Sierra Leone as a lot of "hoo-ha". Behind this dismissal Mr Blair probably recognises that the Sierra Leone affair is the most substantial crisis to affect his administration, with much less froth than previous squalls. How much lasting damage will be done depends on how events will run, and this resolves itself into the question of Robin Cook's survival.

Mr Cook wanted to hide behind the Customs and Excise and Foreign Office enquiries, which will take weeks, maybe months, to complete. He obviously hoped that these would buy him some political time. They haven't. This story has a sex appeal about it with its high politics, spies, helicopters and "dogs of war". Hansard meets Dr No. Plenty of the players involved seem willing to provide momentum for it. It will not go away.

The Prime Minister recognised that he, Mr Cook, and the rest of the government had nothing to look forward to but a long debilitating summer of fresh questions, revelations, and harassment from the press. He also saw that the credulity of observers was being stretched by Mr Cook's claims that ministers had no knowledge of what was being done by their officials. Hence the decision to take the handling of the affair out of the hands of his Foreign Secretary and his dramatic change of defence; "Don't let us forget that what was happening was that the UN and the UK were both trying to help the democratic regime restore its position from an illegal military coup. They were quite right to do it." This sounds dangerously close to a preparation of the ground for the time when he has to admit that official involvement or ministerial knowledge were all justified by a moral, indeed ethical, cause. This was the defence that could have been deployed at the very beginning of the crisis. Mr Blair would be loath to sack Mr Cook, but he must be getting tired of the presentational disasters.