Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Gordon Brown - a question of "courage"

Five days on from the Tripoli Homecoming event Gordon Brown is resolute, that is he is determined not to say whether he backs the decision to return the Lockerbie bomber home to die.

To the inevitable question at his press conference there was the inevitable answer. We know that Mr Brown was "angry and repulsed" by the infamous Saltires in the Sands reception that Abdulbaset Ali al-Megrahi received, but we are no closer knowing what he actually made of the legal turn in the biggest terrorist case in British history

Into the vacuum created by the Prime Minister’s trappist vow on the most controversial decision in Scottish politics since devolution has rushed a tide of comment and ridicule.

There was a case for Mr Brown maintaining radio silence until after Mr MacAskill had been kebabed on the Holyrood grill on Monday. The by the book answer of his advisers is that this was a devolved, quasi-judicial decision under a separate legal system (although Mr Brown mistakenly referred to it as a decision of the Scottish parliament while putting these country miles between himself and Kenny MacAskill’s conclusion).

Add to that Mr Brown’s partisan delight in seeing the SNP government squirm under the pressure of making a serious decision - welcome to big boy’s politics he might have thought. Neither did he want to supply any ammunition to the SNP for their usual diversion of blaming London.

That logic did not take the Prime Minister further than the moment Mr MacAskill sat down on Monday afternoon. Despite the strong, over-rehearsed words about standing firm on terrorism, Mr Brown ended yesterday looking weaker. William Hague accused him of failing to show leadership, and the Lib Dems said he delivered a masterclass in evasion, a pattern of McCavityism that portrays him as the man who is never around when there is something important to say.

There are powerful political and journalistic forces trying to haul the Lockerbie story south to Westminster. The opposition Conservatives want to make Mr Brown as uncomfortable as Mr MacAskill, to damn him whatever he says. In tandem the London political correspondents are keen to get their teeth into the story and only by linking the Prime Minister, or failing that Lord Mandelson, to events can they justify upstaging their Scottish counterparts.

The low voltage electricity coursing through the body politic in Westminster is the belief, consciously held by some, that the Scottish government simply should not be responsible for such a momentous decision.

The peculiarity of a devolved parliament taking a quasi-judicial decision with huge foreign policy implications for the sovereign state can be shrugged off as a kink in the devolutionary road, but only by fellow travellers on the route. For metrocentrics who never bought into the devolutionary arrangement this does not compute constitutionally.

The foreign policy and security implications of an any empty cell in Greenock gaol is emphatically the responsibility of the British government and so is the playout for UK-Libya relations and the commercial and trade links. Mr Brown is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom - he could say whatever he wants and he must have something to say on the issue.

There could be an argument that the Prime Minister does not dance to the media’s tune, he’s free to do so, but the Downing Street "say nothing" strategy simply invites a fresh wave of attacks. We’re told to expect that it is not his compassion that will be questioned but his "courage", the human quality he prizes so much that he wrote book about it,

Mr Brown is back in Scotland today where he can avoid questioning and he can stay out of the media spotlight until a series of press and television interviews in the run up to the Labour conference in a month’s time. Parliament does not get to hold him to account at Prime Minister’s Questions until 14th October, but will anyone have forgotten the issue by then?

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