Hold the phone: the real story behind 'Gaddafigate' crisis
THE biggest constitutional row since devolution has been blamed on the British love of bank holidays, it emerged last night.
In a farcical twist to 'Gaddafigate' worthy of Yes, Prime Minister, it has been claimed Scotland was not informed of Tony Blair's plans to broker a deal on prisoner transfers from Libya because all civil servants north of the Border were enjoying a day off.
Senior Whitehall sources claim that officials from the new Ministry of Justice in London did call civil servants in Scotland prior to Blair's trip to Libya last month. But as the day that they rang, Friday, May 25, was an official public holiday in Scotland, the entire Scottish Executive was shut down, and nobody picked up the phone.
Last week, the failure to make contact led to fury in the Scottish Parliament, as party leaders accused Tony Blair of plotting a secret deal to repatriate the Lockerbie bomber.
First Minister Alex Salmond said that as Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi was in a Scottish jail, ministers should have been told of the ongoing negotiations.
According to the Whitehall insiders, the 'cock-up' began after the basis for the Memorandum of Understanding was agreed on Wednesday, May 23, in a meeting in London between the Libyan justice minister and his Whitehall counterparts. Officials rang Scotland on Friday, May 25 to let them know, only to discover it was a Scottish holiday.
The next working day, Monday, was an English Bank Holiday, meaning that all of Whitehall was at home. When both sets of officials were back in, on Tuesday, Blair was already in Libya to meet Gaddafi.
A senior Scotland Office source said: "The phone call was made by officials from the Ministry of Justice on Friday, May 25. But the person who was supposed to take the call was on holiday. It was as simple as that."
The claims were met with derision by Scottish Executive sources, who said the bungled attempts to get in touch simply demonstrated the UK government's "amateurish" approach to the affair.
A source close to Salmond said: "I am afraid the more Downing Street spins, the worse it gets. It's a case of, 'oh what a tangled web we weave'. First they said the memorandum was a draft, that it wasn't signed, that it had nothing to do with prisoner transfer and Mr Megrahi - and now this."
The First Minister made an emergency statement to Parliament last week on the issue.
The UK government's embarrassment increased last night after it emerged that, while Scotland was out of the loop, officials in the European Commission were aware of the deal.
• Kirsty Wark has apologised to Salmond, over her Newsnight interview with him on the Libyan prisoner row.
The BBC presenter contacted the SNP leader on Friday to say sorry for the "abrupt" way the programme had ended.
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