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LEADING ARTICLE:An inquiry, or a requiem?

THE Conservative victory in the 1992 general election, it is now clear, was the biggest disaster to befall British politics in 60 years. By all known laws of politics, the Tories should have lost. The country was enduring a deep recession; house prices were tumbling; unemployment was rising inexorably. But the Tories won. And they then concluded - sub- consciously at least - that they could get away with anything, that they had become not just the natural party of government but the permanent party of government, that the voters would no longer hold them responsible for their actions. All the rules that normally apply to those who hold positions of power and responsibility have been reversed. Instead of being expected to achieve higher standards of competence and behaviour than ordinary citizens, Tory MPs and ministers are apparently allowed to observe lower ones. When ministers wish to break what appears to be the law, they can call upon immunities. When they sign something, they can plead that they didn't have time to read it. If they issue false information, they can blame a civil servant.

This is the common thread that links the scandals of the past three years and it applies particularly to reactions to the Scott inquiry. On Monday night, a leak to the BBC revealed that William Waldegrave had been criticised by the inquiry for writing "untrue" letters to MPs, denying any change in government policy on the export of arms to Iraq and Iran. (John Major, then Foreign Secretary, had also put about "inaccurate" information. But a senior civil servant had given it to him. So that was all right.) A familiar government diversionary tactic moved smoothly into place. The issue was not Mr Waldegrave's behaviour nor Mr Major's but the behaviour of some unknown person in leaking the information and of the BBC and the press in publishing it. But then the whole Scott inquiry, it should be recalled, is a diversionary tactic, designed to drag on until everybody has forgotten what it is about. Even the usual description - "arms-to- Iraq" inquiry - helps to muddy the waters. Most people most of the time do not care about where we export arms; in the late 1980s, Saddam Hussein was regarded as, if anything, a Western ally. Nor do most people care about Mr Waldegrave's "sophistry", as Scott called it. What they do care about is that the directors of Matrix Churchill nearly went to jail for exporting arms because ministers tried to suppress evidence that they had been doing so with government connivance. It ought to be called the "innocent-men-to-jail" inquiry; that would remind us of the enormity of what occurred.

Yet we are invited to feel sorry for Mr Waldegrave who suffers a few embarrassing moments while getting in and out of his car on a Tuesday morning. No doubt we shall also, if there are further leaks, be invited to feel sorry for Kenneth Clarke, Peter Lilley and Malcolm Rifkind who signed the "gagging orders" or public interest immunity certificates that might have deprived the Matrix Churchill directors of their defence. Ministers later pleaded that they didn't really understand them and that government law officers had told them they had to sign. These, remember, are grown men. They are also people we have entrusted with the great affairs of state - the disposal of armies, the movements of interest rates, the expenditure of billions collected in taxation. Yet they do not seem to grasp what every 18-year-old knows: that you should never sign anything without being quite sure what it is and that ignorance of the law is no excuse.

The Scott inquiry has taken long enough. Ministers are entitled to the "natural justice" of a chance to comment on its conclusions before publication, even though they were prepared to deny the Matrix Churchill directors any kind of justice. They are not entitled to spend months drafting their self-justifications while running up lawyers' bills at public expense. Scott should set an early deadline for their replies, then publish. No minister will go to jail. At worst, a few may have to resign or (heaven forfend) apologise. But, as far as the Tories are concerned, it seems that being elected for the fourth time in a row means never having to say you're sorry.