UK coverage of the “oil for al-Megrahi” scandal is now focusing, again, on whether Brown was in favour of compassionate release. There has been no proof of anything more sinister. Technically, the evidence released shows that the Scottish Executive made the decision on their own. I strongly doubt that anything else will be released or will emerge.
This is the quote of the moment, purportedly the words of former Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell: “Neither the Prime Minister nor the Foreign Secretary would want Mr Megrahi to die in prison but the decision on transfer lies in the hands of Scottish Ministers”. This is no smoking gun but is embarrassing to No 10.
Why? Because publicly, Mr Brown has refused to give an opinion and denied having a role in the decision. His public statements appear different to his private ones. Taking either side would have been a diplomatic faux pas but he has done worse by taking neither and appeared to be a politician at a time when they are especially unpopular. He has also allowed himself to be painted a “ditherer” when he seeks to paint himself as a conviction politician. In this instance, he has shown no conviction. He has, however, just released another book on courage, if you’re interested …
Again I will note that there is absolutely no proof a deal made in exchange for oil. Thus without the Rammell quote, I don’t think the issue would have gained much coverage this evening or in tomorrow’s papers. As it is, the quote still does not provide that great an indictment of the Prime Minister but it provides just enough to run with. Scottish minutes of a Libyan account of a conversation with a proxy of the PM and the Foreign Secretary hardly provide absolute proof.
A cynic might also point out that it is a useful issue for other political parties who will seek to keep it in the news for as long as possible.
The Tories say they oppose the compassionate release of Megrahi, allowing David Cameron to flaunt his Atlanticist credentials and rally his party’s right wing just before conference.
The SNP seem likely to lose tomorrow’s vote in the Scottish Parliament on Megrahi’s release. The publication of these documents “vindicates” the SNP but indicts the UK government. As Mr Salmond stated earlier today, these documents show that the SNP played no part in negotiations with the British government over the Prisoner Transfer Agreement and do not show that the SNP released Megrahi for anything other than compassionate grounds. These documents appear to show the UK government lobbying for the release of Megrahi; of course, as Mr Salmond noted, the letters were “punctilious” and do not overtly state anything. But that is the art of subtle diplomacy. Given the unsubtle nature of Brown’s refusal to comment on this issue, perhaps this may be his strongest defence that he was not directly involved and did not seek to influence the decision.