Leading article: Too grave an error of judgement to ignore

LORD NEILL, QC, has done the right thing for the wrong reasons. As chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, he must avoid any hint of controversy. Having accepted a brief from Dame Shirley Porter, he has now dropped it. He should not have taken it in the first place. Dame Shirley is, of course, entitled to the best legal representation available as she takes her case to the Court of Appeal. But she will have to do without Lord Neill, formidable as his legal reputation may be. Dame Shirley is no ordinary client. Judgement has already been given after an exhaustive investigation into her antics at Westminster Council. For Lord Neill to have acted for her would have been a bizarre spectacle - the nation's "sleaze-buster" standing up in court in defence of someone at the centre of one of the greatest sleaze scandals of the day.

Lord Neill's decision to accept the brief raises serious questions about his judgement. It hardly takes a sophisticated mind to see that Dame Shirley is precisely the sort of client that a man in Lord Neill's position should not have. His position as chairman of the Standards Committee rests in large part on his supposed intuitive sense of propriety. Compounding the error, he has shown that he is susceptible to public pressure, albeit this time in the right direction. Lord Neill's great merit was that he was obviously beyond reproach. In all likelihood this was just a silly error on his part. But he has the one job in Britain where no silly errors are acceptable.