Losing him would be a humiliation for Blair

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THERE is going to be nothing in this column about who-knew-what- when and similar questions over arms to Sierra Leone, a faraway country in which, however, Her Britannic Majesty's Government still takes a certain amount of interest, not least because there are diamonds there. This omission is not due to any want of diligence on my part or to the unimportance of the subject. It is to be explained by the virtual impossibility of obtaining precise information at this stage.

If the head of the Foreign Office, Sir John Kerr, is in a state of confusion - as he manifestly was when MPs questioned him last Thursday - and if the Foreign Secretary himself is hardly less muddled, changing his story as he does almost daily, what hope can there be for the rest of us? In six months the truth, or most of it, will have emerged.

HM Customs & Excise will have completed their investigations. They like to regard themselves as an independent arm of government, separate both from the Inland Revenue and from the constabulary. They have a kind of collective folk-memory of chasing brandy-smugglers up and down the old Portsmouth Road, and are consequently a pain in the neck, as any payer of VAT will testify. The independent committee of inquiry announced by Mr Robin Cook will also have pronounced. This is to consist of a lawyer of great sagacity and two other members.

By this time everyone will have forgotten what the dispute was about in the first place, which will suit Mr Tony Blair and Mr Cook admirably. This, after all, is what happened over Sir Richard Scott's report on arms to Iraq. Certainly two ministers, Sir Nicholas Lyell and Mr William Waldegrave, were in terms censured by it. They were saved by what Walter Bagehot called the brute force of a parliamentary majority, even if on this occasion the majority was only one. Mr Blair has a more brutish majority at his disposal.

But the bulk of Sir Richard's report lies cobwebbed in the corner. I have read some but not all of it. It contains much detail, most of it discreditable, about the workings of British government. It will prove of great value to writers on constitutional matters once they have worked up enough energy to get through the whole of it. For the moment its function is to support the drinks tray or the electric lamp. There has been some talk that arms to Sierra Leone are quite different from arms to Iraq. The fearful symmetry of Mr Cook, the Robespierre of the latter, being transformed into the Marie Antoinette, pathetic victim, of the former, seemed too apt to be true. Besides, No 10 had a clear interest - not allowing the government to look foolish - in depicting Mr Cook's small crisis as completely different from the Conservatives' own horror.

In fact or, rather, in legal principle I cannot discern the slightest difference between the two affairs. In both the government of the day, through its civil servants, was pursuing a political policy at odds with or, at least, different from the legalistic policy being pursued by the government in theory and by the Customs authorities in practice.

That the reinstated leader in Sierra Leone is - to lapse into Blairspeak - a good guy, whereas Saddam Hussein is a bad guy, does not make any difference. Indeed, at the relevant time Mr Saddam was seen to be, not perhaps a good guy, but certainly a useful guy: yet another illustration of the perception and far-sightedness of our much-admired Foreign Office. The more recent episode demonstrates the difficulty, not so much of carrying out an ethical foreign policy, as of determining what such a policy consists of in the first place. Is it ethical invariably to follow the dictates of international law? This is still, in essence, a static system. It postulates sovereign states enjoying virtually unlimited powers within their own determined borders.

Some of these powers have, admittedly, been limited by various accords on human rights. But the highest crime and misdemeanour of the legal system is still for one state to invade another. This was the entirely proper justification for the war against Iraq in 1990-91 - though whether the allies would have been quite so keen on the use of force if Kuwait had not possessed oil is another question.

In Sierra Leone the mischief lay in the United Nations resolution prohibiting the export of arms to either side of the conflict in that unhappy land. The Foreign Office supported or, at any rate, acquiesced in the resolution: a further example of the workings of that perceptive and far-sighted arm of government.

Is Mr Cook responsible? Lord (then Sir Robin) Butler, the previous secretary of the cabinet, tried to refine the doctrine of ministerial responsibility. He distinguished between actions for which a minister really was responsible and actions about which he knew nothing but for which he was required to take formal responsibility. It is all great nonsense, a piece of mandarinese which Sir Robin was clearly making up as he was going along. I will now give you the constitutional explanation of why this was so. The individual responsibility of ministers to the House of Commons predated the rise of cabinet government. It was the House calling one of the sovereign's servants to account. The doctrine that ministers were responsible certainly survived the age following the Reform Bill of 1832, when the House regularly turned out governments and governments sometimes turned themselves out by resigning instead of going to the country in a general election.

But the doctrine survived in a weaker form. Prime ministers or cabinets took erring, incompetent or merely unfortunate ministers under their protection, under the umbrella of collective responsibility. To attack one was to attack all. With the rise of mass parties outside the House, this protection became virtually guaranteed. Sometimes, however, a sailor would be thrown out of the boat in an attempt to satisfy temporarily the surrounding sharks.

In 1935 the cabinet agreed what became known as the Hoare-Laval pact but, when it was published, the public outcry was so great that the foreign secretary responsible for it, Sir Samuel Hoare, was thrown overboard. In 1986 Sir Leon Brittan, possibly the least guilty of all those ministers involved in the Westland affair, was offered up as a sacrifice to the anti-semitism of the 1922 Committee. In 1954 Sir Thomas Dugdale, the minister of agriculture, resigned in the aftermath of the Crichel Down case, which was about the department's hanging on to previously requisitioned land.

It is often claimed that Sir Thomas, like Lord Carrington and his junior ministers after the Falklands debacle, was one of the last of the proper gentlemen. It was not quite like that. He did not resign because he thought his ministry had been in the wrong. On the contrary: he resigned because he thought his civil servants had been all too evidently in the right and were not being supported by the cabinet as they should have been.

Mr Cook is unlikely to find himself in this position. If anyone is a candidate for the protection of collective responsibility, it is he: not because he has done nothing wrong - for right and wrong do not come into it - but because losing him would be seen as a humiliation for Mr Blair. I nevertheless fear that Humpty-Dumpty can never be put together again.