Tony Blair and the Labour Government are under fire for pulling the plug on the Serious Fraud Office investigation.
Well, I’m no expert on arms dealing, bribery or Middle East relations, but since I've been challenged, I’ll give the issue my best shot (no pun intended)…
My first observation is the rather obvious irony that any bribery prosecution would surely put Thatcher and her Tory Government in the frame. Not Blair. Not Labour.
I understand it was Michael Heseltine, then Deputy Conservative PM, who signed the deal which came under the microscope two decades later.
So the Tories appear to be in a glasshouse on this one. But that of course doesn't stop the media assisting the Tories in chucking bricks at Blair.
For me, the sensible starting point on this issue has to be first priority of any Government: the protection of British security interests.
That means putting British lives first - whatever did or didn’t happen two decades ago when Lady Thatcher was in Downing Street.
Less important, but significant factors are the thousands of British jobs which depend on our defence industries, and whether it’s in the general public interest to continue an investigation which has gone nowhere in two years.
I understand the facts to be these:
1. British Aerospace (BAe) was accused of paying millions of pounds in bribes to middlemen to win the £150 million Al Yamamah arms contract signed in the 1980s which secured thousands of British defence industry jobs. BAe have always denied paying bribes.
2. Despite two years investigations so far, the Serious Fraud Office predicted that a further 18-months was needed before it would be known if charges were possible. That's three and half years of investigations into something that happened - or didn't - 20 years ago.
3. Representations to the Attorney General on national security were on the basis that a breakdown in UK-Saudi relations could endanger vital joint work on counter-terrorism and impede the search for peace and stability in the Middle East, which in turn could threaten the safety of UK citizens.
4. Acting as overall minister with responsibility for the Serious Fraud Office, and also as guardian of the public interest, Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, reviewed the case in detail.
5. Having examined the evidence, he reached the view that it was unlikely that a successful prosecution - resulting in a conviction - could be brought, even if the SFO were given a further 18 months. In contrast, Serious Fraud Office director Robert Wardle says we will never know if a prosecution was possible, as the investigation was not concluded.
6. It has been reported that the Saudis threatened to cancel a £10 billion order for Typhoon fighters unless the investigation was halted, threatening thousands of UK defence industry jobs.
7. Tony Blair clearly put Britain’s national security interests first. He advised Lord Goldsmith that he wanted to keep the Saudis “on side”, particularly in terms of counter-terrorism and in respect of the Israel-Palestine question.Tony Blair says:
"I have no doubt at all that had we allowed this to go forward we’d have done immense damage to the true interests of this country."
The Sunday papers will be full of flak and froth and conspiracy headlines. But I have no doubt they will be far less damaging than if the inquiry festered on leading to the Saudis pulling diplomatic relations and cancelling the Typhoon order.