Labour sharpens knives as Waldegrave becomes target

 

IT'S the election, stupid.

The thought struck home on Tuesday afternoon, as John Major and Tony Blair got stuck into their first post Scott encounter of the week.

The Labour leader was at his best. Morally outraged. Legal skills finely honed. Eyes glinting as he savoured the Prime Minister's discomfort and the thought of ministerial heads to roll over the Arms for Iraq affair. Mr Major, after all, had set up the Scott inquiry. He'd paid the money. And the former Lord Justice had the government bang to rights.

Never mind the questions of competence now threatening the position of the Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell. Chief Secretary William Waldegrave (then a Foreign Office minister, party toe the 1988 decision to change the policy over the sale of non lethal weapons to Iraq) had committed a more grievous offence.

According to Scott, he and other ministers had failed to honour their own code of conduct on the vital issue of parliamentary accountability. And, ironically enough, we know about that code - Questions of Procedures for Ministers - because Mr Major decided to publish it in a gesture toward more open government!

Paragraph 27 of the code states that it is the duty of ministers "to give parliament and the public as full information as possible about the policies, decisions and actions of the government and not to deceive or mislead parliament and the public".

As one wag put it last week, incompetence in government is seldom a sacking offence, least of all in this one. But misleading the House of Commons is of an entirely different order.

Mr Waldegrave's defence is that the 1988 decision - a policy tilt in favour of Iraq after the end of the Iran Iraq war - amounted to a reinterpretation of the government's guidelines rather than an actual change.

He stakes his continued role in cabinet on Sir Richard's decision to acquit him of "malicious intent" in subsequently misleading MPs and members of the public about the state of government policy on the issue.

Last Thursday, on the eve of publication, Mr Major carefully finessed his guiding rule ministers who "knowingly" misled parliament would be required to resign. In crude terms, if Mr Waldegrave misled anybody he genuinely and sincerely didn't know he was doing it!

"Sophistry". That was Sir Richard's word for it. The ambiguity of his conclusions has been a major inconvenience to Labour and the Liberal Democrats as they've struggled to build a head of steam.

Even so, Mr Blair thinks there IS enough in the report to do for Mr Waldegrave. And it seems clear that he will be Labour's No 1 target in next Monday's debate.

Mr Blair maintained his offensive yesterday, again challenging Mr Major to say if he accepts key Scott findings:

. that ministers "failed to inform parliament of the current state of government policy, on non lethal arms sales to Iraq".

. that "this failure was deliberate and was an inevitable result of the agreement between the three junior ministers (Waldegrave, Alan Clark and Lord Trefgarne) that no publicity would be given to the decision to adopt a more liberal or relaxed policy or interpretation of the guidelines".

. that "the over riding and determinative reason was a fear of strong public opposition to the loosening of the restrictions on the supply of defence equipment to Iraq".

Labour sources say Mr Blair believes this goes to the heart of the matter, and that if Mr Major accepts these findings then Mr Waldegrave will have to go. But he shows no sign of going, nor Mr Major of letting him.

As yet only a tiny number of Tory MPs has indicated serious misgivings about the government's handling of Scott. And not all of them are likely to rebel in the division lobby on Monday.

On Tuesday afternoon Mr Blair shook his head in mock disbelief at the baying ranks of Tory MPs. Were they not affronted by this assault on democracy? Did none of them want ministers held to account?

Many of them, like Sir Teddy Taylor, do indeed. But having carefully read Scott, he finds no grounds for Mr Major requiring the ministers to resign if they do not wish to. And he detects a "tragic and worrying conspiracy of the Foreign Office under governments of 41 parties".

Other MPs, too, will find cover in charges of double standards and hypocrisy, and the assurance that Labour in power would behave no differently. The Ulster Unionists, for example, are already rationalising their inclination not to oppose Mr Major.

After all, nobody on the Labour benches took exception when it, emerged that ministers had been less than honest with the House cover their lengthy contacts with the IRA. And Mr Peter Thurnham's threat to resign the Tory whip (in pique, it is claimed, at not being found a safe seat) will further bolster the whips call for party unity.

Were Mr Major still facing a leadership heave, things might have been very different. As it is, Tories have begun to sense a recovery in their fortunes, and the general election draws ever closer. In Mr Blair, moreover, they see a Labour leader motivated, not by the desire for morality in high places, but by base electoral cunning.

Even the doubters may, accordingly, seek to deny him victory on Monday night.

But whatever the result of the Commons vote, Mr Blair will look to the opinion polls, the mounting evidence of public disbelief, and conclude that the advantage, on this issue, will remain his.