As the Middle East situation goes from bad to worse, the British Government has a few problems closer to home to deal with. These problems reflect Tony Blair’s loss of authority and the decline of New Labour as we enter the last months of his Premiership. Let’s start with the continuing BAE scandal. If Blair thought that by halting the SFO investigation into BAE’s corrupt dealings with the Saudi government over the Al Yamamah arms deal the problem would go away, he was sorely mistaken. Now instead of the original corruption being investigated, the focus is firmly on Blair’s misguided decision. As pressure on Blair mounted to reverse his decision from 130 campaign groups, the Prime Minister reverted to the defence we’ve seen so often:
“The Attorney General set out the reasons for the decision on that and I have nothing further to add,”
Lord Goldsmith’s reason for dropping the inquiry was, we were told, national security and he told Parliament on December 14 that the security services agreed with his assessment. Unfortunately the newly knighted John Scarlett. head of MI6 was reading from a different script.
Whitehall sources have told the Guardian that the statement to the Lords was incorrect. MI6 and MI5 possessed no intelligence that the Saudis intended to sever security links. The intelligence agencies had been merely asked whether it would be damaging to UK national security if such a breach did happen. They replied that naturally it would.
Later the Foreign Office issued a statement which stated that:
“Contrary to the Guardian article, SIS (MI6) shared the concerns of others within government over the possible consequences for the public interest of the SFO investigation.”
Obviously furious at having their investigation halted, the SFO leaked the names of top BAE officials involved in more corruption in South Africa.
BAE’s chief executive, Mike Turner, is named along with the former chairman, Sir Dick Evans, and two other executives, in a document dated June 26 last year.
The document is a request for mutual legal assistance sent from the SFO in London to authorities in South Africa, where a £1.5bn aircraft deal with Britain is under investigation. The SFO’s dossier says: “There is reasonable cause to believe that all the above-named persons and company have committed offences of corruption.” It was leaked to the Mail & Guardian, a Johannesburg newspaper.
The closing of the Al Yamamah inquiry is now being investigated by The Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which has condemned the closure and says Britain may have reneged on its promise to combat corruption in the developing world. It isn’t just Saudi Arabia and South Africa involved in corruption with Blair and BAE Systems. There’s another scandal, this time in Tanzania. Tony Blair personally backed a plan to sell Tanzania a military air traffic control system which was ten times more expensive than anything that country actually needed. Tanzania, one of the world’s poorest countries which had just had its debt written off, has only eight military aircraft. In order to push through this sale, Blair, with the support of Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon went against Gordon Brown, Clare Short and the World Bank which condemned the deal as a complete waste of Money. Now it turns out that BAE used a $12, million bribe to get the deal.
The UK’s biggest arms supplier secretly paid a $12m commission into a Swiss account in a deal which led to Tanzania, one of the world’s poorest countries, buying a controversial military radar system.
A Tanzanian middleman, who has a long-standing relationship with military and government figures, has admitted that the sum was covertly moved to a Swiss account by BAE Systems, which is under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office.
The SFO are now investigating this case and are going through BAE’s Swiss bank transactions with Tanzania. It remains to be seen whether or not Blair will decide that this investigation too is a threat to national security and close it down as well.
The disaster that is Iraq has caused some Government Ministers to try to distance themselves from the foreign policy they previously supported and Blair’s close relationship with George Bush. Hilary Benn, James Purnell, and Yvette Cooper are all now criticising the decisions that were made. Most interesting of all though, was Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain’s outburst in The New Statesman:
“The neo-con mission has failed … It’s not only failed to provide a coherent international policy, it’s failed wherever it’s been tried, and it’s failed with the American electorate, who kicked it into touch last November. The problem for us as a government … was actually to maintain a working relationship with what was the most rightwing American administration, if not ever, then in living memory.”
Peter Hain, who voted strongly for the Iraq War and strongly against investigating the Iraq war, is of course launching his bid to become Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. If you thought Ruth Kelly was a hypocrite, take a look at this and this and this:
There is vigorous public debate about Britain’s support for UN sanctions on Iraq. I have no intention of ducking this debate, because I am convinced Britain’s policy is right.
This week also saw another development in the cash for honours scandal. A fourth arrest has been made in the investigation and this time it is a senior Downing Street political adviser. Ruth Turner was arrested 6:30am on Friday, she is first salaried government official to be arrested. She was later released without charge. What is interesting is that she was questioned not only about cash for honours but also about perverting the cause of justice which suggests that the police suspect that attempts at a cover-up have been made. As you’d expect, Ruth Turner denies any wrongdoing and is expressing her willingness to co-operate fully with the police.
“I have already given the police two lengthy interviews and made it clear to them that I was happy to speak to them again at any stage. I have been completely open with the police throughout and will continue to co-operate with them fully . . . I absolutely refute any allegations of wrongdoing of any nature whatsoever.”
So far, Blair is still supporting her. That might well change if she decides to spill the beans.
“Ruth is a person of the highest integrity for whom I have great regard and I continue to have complete confidence in her,” said the prime minister.
There is more than a hint of nervousness at Downing Street now and the previously cordial relations between the police and Downing Street have cooled significantly. I was amused by a statement by Lord Puttnam who was himself ennobled by Tony Blair after donating money to the Labour Party:
“What about turning up at 9 o’clock, or what about phoning and saying: ‘I wonder if you’d mind coming into the police station, we’d like to talk to you’? Why do you send four policemen at 6.30 in the morning to arrest a perfectly nice woman? It’s ludicrous. I think they’re into theatrics.
Hmmm, theatrics. That sounds familiar. My guess is that the police will now want to interview her boss Jonathan Powell again… possibly under caution this time. And I suspect Lord Levy might well be contemplating another trip to the Middle East. As for Blair, well we’ll have to wait and see but I doubt he’s sleeping that easily.
Anyway that concludes this week’s roundup of sleaze and corruption. I wonder what next week will bring.