Today’s near-simultaneous release of documents in London and Edinburgh, which was meant to clear the air but appears likely to make the row even worse.
Ten letters released by the UK Ministry of Justice and Foreign and Commonwealth Office appeared to back Downing Street in its insistence that no explicit pressure had been applied on the Scottish government to release or transfer al-Megrahi.
But there was plenty of evidence to suggest that the UK tacitly supported such a decision, including what appears to be a U-turn by Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, who went back on a previous pledge to have al-Megrahi specifically excluded from a prisoner transfer agreement being negotiated with the Libyans.
Also released today were two letters from the Foreign Office, including one from Ivan Lewis, Mr Rammell’s successor at the Foreign Office. Mr Lewis also insisted that the final decision would be up to the Scottish government, but encouraged Mr MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, to consider the Libyan demand for al-Megrahi’s release.
Is it a smoking gun? It records that the Libyan Europe Minister quoted Foreign Office Minsiter Bill Rammell as saying that neither Gordon Brown nor David Miliband would want al-Megrahi to die in prison.
That is the first time either Mr Brown’s or Mr Miliband’s apparent views on a possible transfer to Libya of the Lockerbie bomber have been made public. And it could explain why Mr Brown has refused all invitations to say whether he agrees with the Scottish decision. It does not prove interference from London, but it shows the mindset.
Before that bombshell hit Westminster the inescapable impression from the correspondence between the British and Scottish governments over the future of the Lockerbie bomber is that London became keener and keener on his release, while at all times telling Edinburgh and the Libyans that it was a Scottish decision.
The line from the British government chopped and changed in the early days. First we have Lord Falconer, then Lord Chancellor, in June 2007 telling Alex Salmond that he accepts any prisoner transfer agreement could not cover al-Megrahi.
In July that year Jack Straw, who had by then taken over at the Ministry of Justice, was even suggesting to Kenny MacAskill a way that the exclusion could be achieved – saying that the agreement should exclude all prisoners who had committed an offence before a specific date. In August his junior minister Lord Hunt was saying that it was not necessary to write a specific exclusion for al-Megrahi in the proposed PTA.
In September Mr Straw agreed with the Scots that there could be an exclusion clause that would not just apply to al-Megrahi but anyone convicted of involvement in Lockerbie. But by December 19 he was having to admit that he had been unable to secure an explicit exclusion.
In February Mr Straw’s line had hardened as he told Mr Salmond it was neither “necessary or sensible” to risk damaging Britain’s relationship with Libya by inserting a specific exclusion. Did that amount to pressure? Not quite, as Mr Straw continued to reiterate that it was a Scottish decision.
In his last published letter Mr Straw went that much further. In November 2008, as he anticipated the ratification of the PTA, he reminded Mr Salmond in a letter of Libyan concerns for al-Megrahi’s health and possible return to Libya.
The Foreign Office position was clearer. Without saying so, its letters suggest that it believed the transfer of al-Megrahi would be beneficial.
The Prime Minister will certainly be forced to tap dance around this, but If I were him I would hang on to those DVDs the President gave him as a gift.
Speaking of the POTUS, there is one more mystery. For some reason the United States did not allow Great Britain to release the correspondence between Washington and London regarding the release, leading many to wonder what the “most transparent administration in history” is trying to hide.