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Friday, 2 February 2007

2 February 2007

Now, let’s see if I can do this without falling foul of the law, the lawyers, or the BBC thought-police. The time has come, I fear, to tackle the Case of the Downing Street Honours Investigation.

“Watson, I fancy there might be more to this than meets the eye.” Sherlock Holmes removed his pipe thoughtfully from his lips, and tapped it twice against the ashtray. “What do you mean, Holmes?” The good Dr Watson was, as ever, finding it difficult to keep up.

“Consider,” said Holmes, as he rose from his leather chair and strode to the window. “It began, did it not, as a simple case of who paid whom for what. To put it simply: did the man Blair, or some other person or persons acting on his behalf, offer to make available certain honours, in return for large sums of money, contrary to the provisions of the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925? Was there, as the lawyers might say, an implied contractual obligation?”

Watson nodded. He knew there was no point in saying anything. “But now …” Holmes paused, as if for dramatic effect … “But now, we find, do we not, that our estimable friends in the London constabulary are chasing another fox entirely. Now, they are looking, as the cheaper type of newspapers might put it, for evidence …” and he paused again, as if reluctant to stoop to the vulgarity of a mere headline-writer … “for evidence of a Cover-up.”

“But Holmes, they have said nothing at all about that,” said Watson. “Precisely, my dear Watson,” replied the detective as he returned to his pipe and relit it. “That is my point.”

To be honest, I’m not even sure that Arthur Conan Doyle would have found this particular tale worth telling. No bodies, no fog-shrouded moors, not his kind of thing at all, really. On the other hand, a Prime Minister twice questioned by police; his chief fund-raiser and fixer twice arrested; one of his top Downing Street officials also arrested; two other officials questioned under caution.

No, I’m sorry, I have no idea where it will end. But I have a hunch it won’t end soon. Remember, an arrest is not the same as a charge. Indeed, so far, no one has been charged with any criminal offence – and even if they were to be, until a jury has returned a verdict, we will not know if an offence has been committed. And even if there is a trial, it’s impossible to envisage it taking place until long after Mr Blair has moved out of Downing Street. What we do know now is that deputy assistant commissioner John Yates and his team from Scotland Yard are giving every appearance of taking their task exceedingly seriously. Much more seriously, I suspect, than Downing Street officials might have wished.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic – and I draw no parallels whatsoever except a coincidence of timing – a former top aide to vice-president Dick Cheney is on trial, charged with obstruction of justice, perjury, and making false statements. In other words, a cover-up. (The case concerns the alleged leaking of the name of an under-cover CIA agent, Valerie Plame, whose husband, a former ambassador, had been asked to look for evidence that Saddam Hussein had been trying to buy nuclear materials in Africa. He found none, and said so, much to the apparent annoyance of the Bush administration.)

So here’s a question for you: are you appalled that senior officials, up to and perhaps including the prime minister, could even be suspected of such things (and yes, m’lud, I repeat that no charges have been brought), or are you quietly relieved that even when it involves those at the very summit of political power, the law shall be seen to take its course? As Lord Denning reminded us nearly 30 years ago: “Be you never so high, the law is above you."

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