Page last updated at 11:37 GMT, Friday, 11 April 2008 12:37 UK

Brown's arms probe dilemma

Analysis
By Ross Hawkins
Political reporter, BBC News

The defunct fraud investigation into the massive al-Yamamah arms deal had been all but forgotten by many at Westminster.

Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown has a little time to ponder his response

It looked like something for the history books, a handful of campaigners and a few interested journalists.

Not any more.

A court ruling that the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) acted unlawfully has made it Gordon Brown's problem.

The prime minister cannot tell the SFO to re-open its investigation. That is a matter for the investigators.

Manufacturing jobs

But he has the same dilemma as his predecessor, Tony Blair, faced when he was in power: What to do about Saudi Arabia's objections?

Mr Blair made his opinion perfectly clear when he was in Number 10.

He thought the SFO probe would have achieved nothing, wrecked Britain's relationship with key ally Saudi Arabia and cost thousands of precious manufacturing jobs.

He knew that view would not make him popular in some circles - and that it would have breached international law to halt the probe on economic grounds - but he was sure it was right.

Now Gordon Brown must decide whether he agrees.

He has some time to think about his public response.

Answers wanted

With the Commons in recess, and the usual twice daily lobby briefings of journalists not taking place, there are fewer chances than usual to question the prime minister or his spokesman.

But sooner or later Mr Brown will have to give his view.

Criticism from opposition politicians or foreign organisations is unlikely to have anything like the impact of the court ruling, but it may keep a tricky issue from the Blair years in the headlines

It is not just inquisitive reporters who will be keen to hear what he thinks.

Saudi officials and diplomats will also want to know how Mr Brown intends to react - and they will not wait until the next public statement to get answers.

The High Court ruled there had been a successful attempt by a foreign government to pervert the course of justice in the United Kingdom.

Political pressure

If the prime minister sticks with Mr Blair's position he will be accused of ignoring that ruling, and he will have to face down furious critics.

If he supports the idea of a new investigation he risks prompting a diplomatic dispute and opponents will say he is endangering British jobs.

If he says this is a matter that should be left for the SFO, he will be accused of criticising Mr Blair's earlier intervention.

The Liberal Democrats say one investigation - into the arms deal itself - is not enough.

They want an independent inquiry into the political pressure that was brought to bear on the director of the SFO before he dropped the investigation.

Bribery cases

Meanwhile the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is looking into what it describes as "shortcomings" in Britain's anti-bribery laws, and the abandoned al-Yamamah investigation.

It wants to know why more bribery cases are not brought to British courts.

The OECD's own staff were in London to question officials just last week.

Criticism from opposition politicians or foreign organisations is unlikely to have anything like the impact of the court ruling, but it may keep a tricky issue from the Blair years in the headlines.

And that could prove very frustrating for Downing Street.




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