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Charles Kennedy: Flawed judgement, double standards

The Doubter's View

Once again the Prime Minister is embattled and again it comes down to a question of political judgement. It happens every time there's another "Iraq problem" and it isn't going to go away. Tony Blair made a huge mistake when he chose to support George Bush rather than listen to the British people. Now it's a domino effect. Each time he tries to contain another crisis, his bad judgement knocks down a few more pieces a little bit quicker. The latest allegations, that the British government bugged the United Nations Secretary-General, damage us all.

Last week's mistake was so avoidable. The Prime Minister was faced with a simple choice. His government had been accused of a pretty spectacular crime - bugging the UN Secretary-General. One single sentence could have put a stop to days of speculation. He could have said whether or not it was true.

Some people would say that bugging the UN is just one of those things. With a cynical shrug, they remark that this is what happens in the real world. Indeed Kofi Annan's own director of communications, Edward Mortimer, said: "We do realise that these things happen." But he went on to say that when the British government was asked if Clare Short's allegations were true, the answer given was much the same as that given by the Prime Minister at his press conference. "There was a telephone call which seemed apologetic in tone," said Mr Mortimer, "but I think did not really amount to an admission of substance."

Just pause and consider that for a moment. The UN is an organisation which we, as a nation, were instrumental in founding. It is dedicated to world peace. Annan is not a security threat to the United Kingdom. He's not a terrorist or some dodgy dictator. I've met him and I admire him. He's a man who inspires trust.

The UN deserves a proper response from the British government. Bugging the private line of its most senior official would not only be illegal but, I believe, unacceptable. Had Tony Blair simply stood up at his press conference and denied it, he would have saved our country from being ridiculed around the world and he would have underlined our respect for the peace-keeping role of the UN. Above all, he would have left Ms Short with a lot of explaining to do.

Certainly, that was an option. Those hoary old chestnuts about being constrained about what he can say because of past precedent are as weak when it comes to commenting on intelligence matters as they are proving weak about his refusal to publish the Attorney General's advice over whether the military action in Iraq was legal. After all, it was the Prime Minister who decided to publish more intelligence material in his dossiers while arguing his controversial case for war than any of his predecessors. Having made a virtue of revealing such material when it suited him, he now refuses to answer a straightforward question. That smacks of double standards.

There can also be no question here of risking the lives of our intelligence gatherers. I struggle with the image of Annan and his band of desperadoes thirsting for revenge. We're not talking about bugging the Tora Bora caves; we're talking about the UN building in New York.

It's nonsense. If Tony Blair knew that what Clare Short revealed had never taken place, he could, and should, have exercised his political judgement and told us so. But he didn't. Why not?'

When he argued that we should attack Iraq, Tony Blair claimed that authority for such an intervention derived from the UN Security Council. But Security Council members proved unconvinced and many days of desperate diplomacy took place before the much sought-after second resolution collapsed. By refusing to give a straight answer now, it is hard not to conclude that our Prime Minister was using the intelligence services to achieve a result by less scrupulous means. This inevitably reduces the United Kingdom's standing as an honest broker throughout the world - a very damaging situation.

The Prime Minister should make a statement to Parliament about this at the earliest opportunity. Not only would that re-establish trust, it could also establish a much more important principle. For this episode also underlines the importance of the activities of our security services being made more democratically accountable. The British people should know what is being done in their name.

This isn't some fussy assertion of high-flown liberal principle. I know our security services are an important part of our national defence. By their nature, they must operate covertly. Sometimes they must also use unconventional methods, ones which would even be denied to the police and the military. But they must always be properly accountable. Wasn't that the lesson we learnt from Spycatcher? But our dogged PM has now dug his heels in and I'm sure he won't budge.

There are a number of available options. He could simply invite the Intelligence Committee (which meets in secret and reports to him) to examine the facts. Or he could widen the remit of the Butler inquiry. But he's already told me on the floor of the House of Commons that, in his view, public examination of issues involving his political judgement is undemocratic. Finally, he could invite Parliament to produce its own guidelines to protect members of the intelligence services who are invited to go beyond the bounds of acceptable practice. But none of these will happen.

I have no idea whether Clare Short was right or not. I am certainly perturbed by the statements by former UN weapons inspectors who also claim they were spied on and which seem to back her up. Either way, I am sure we should be told the truth. These are serious matters which raise alarming questions about the thinking of those at the top of government.

The real problem is about the Prime Minister making bad political decisions, ones which flow from the huge misjudgements that preceded military action in Iraq. Until those are opened to public scrutiny, I don't believe Tony Blair can move on.