The Lockerbie bomber? A likely story . . .

In all the furore over Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, we have lost sight of one important fact.

So, the British ambassador to the US says that the government "deeply regrets" the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie atrocity. Meanwhile, US senators are calling for an inquiry into allegations that BP lobbied the British government to let Megrahi go in order to protect their interests in Libya.

News of his release on compassionate grounds a year ago prompted a similar wave of indignation. The papers bleated about Megrahi showing no compassion to his victims, that this was not "justice", and that the government was ignoring the victims of the bombing. This post from the Telegraph's Con Coughlin was fairly typical.

What is rarely mentioned amid all the outrage is that there is considerable doubt over Megrahi's guilt.

As the late Paul Foot pointed out, having sat through the whole of Megrahi's trial in the Netherlands in 2001, the prosecution's case was farcical.

That Megrahi felt the need to write 300 pages about his innocence is odd -- one ought to have sufficed.

To summarise, Megrahi is meant to have planted a bomb on a plane in Malta, which then travelled on to Frankfurt, and then on again to Heathrow, before finally exploding on Pan Am Flight 103 in the sky above Lockerbie. We are supposed to believe, then, that the bomb got on to three planes in a row without being detected. It seems a lot more likely that the bomb was planted at London than anywhere else.

In their judgment, the three judges at the trial also pointed out that there was nothing that proved Megrahi had put a bomb on the plane in Malta. They noted: "The absence of any explanation of the method by which the primary suitcase might have been placed on board KM180 [Air Malta] is a major difficulty for the Crown case."

What's more, Megrahi was apparently aided by a conspirator, yet his co-accused at the trial was unanimously acquitted.

The prosecution's star witness was Tony Gauci, a Maltese shopkeeper, who claimed to remember Megrahi buying clothes from his shop. These same clothes apparently found their way into the case in which the bomb was concealed.

Gauci also said, however, that he remembered it raining on the day Megrahi came in, yet meteorological records show this was not the case. This alone does not discount his testimony, but it must give pause for thought.

His claim to be able to identify a particular customer many months after he came into his shop is much more difficult to sustain. Again, the court expressed its reservations, saying that "Mr Gauci's initial description to DCI Bell would not in a number of respects fit the first accused" (Megrahi).

Perhaps those calling for an inquiry into the circumstances of this man's release should dig a little deeper into how he was convicted in the first place.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.