Labour has a case to answer on the Lockerbie bomber

We were not told that the government did “all it could” to facilitate al-Megrahi’s release.

The news that the last Labour government did "all it could" to secure the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, has prompted David Cameron to claim that MPs were not given "the full picture" at the time. Labour has responded by pointing out that nothing in the report contradicts what David Miliband told MPs on 12 October 2009.

If you compare Miliband's statement with Sir Gus O'Donnell's report, it becomes clear that Cameron has a point.

Here's the key quote from the O'Donnell report on the release:

Policy was therefore progressively developed that HMG should do all it could, whilst respecting devolved competences, to facilitate an appeal by the Libyans to the Scottish Government for Mr Megrahi's transfer under the PTA or release on compassionate grounds as the best outcome for managing the risks faced by the UK.

And here's the key extract from Miliband's statement:

British interests, including those of UK nationals, British businesses and possibly security co-operation, would be damaged, perhaps badly, if Megrahi were to die in a Scottish prison rather than Libya . . . Given the risk of Libyan adverse reaction, we made it clear to them both that as a matter of law and practice it was not a decision for the UK government, and as a matter of policy we were not seeking Megrahi's death in Scottish custody.

As Miliband made clear at the time, the Brown government favoured the release of Megrahi "as a matter of policy" but did not formally lobby the Scottish government. This assertion is supported by the report, which notes that "the former Government took great effort not to communicate to the Scottish Government its underlying desire to see Mr Megrahi released before he died".

But while Miliband's statement is not contradicted by the report, he said nothing to suggest that the UK favoured Megrahi's release to the point of actively "facilitating" an appeal by the Libyans. The problem, in other words, is not what he did say but what he didn't say. Miliband has since (rightly) admitted that the release of Megrahi was wrong. He should now also admit that the government failed to give MPs the full picture on Megrahi.

NB: It's worth pointing out, as few have today, that Megrahi's conviction is widely disputed. Read John Pilger's column from September 2009 for the full story.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496