IT STARTED AS A Cabinet of chums; no more handbagging from Margaret Thatcher, instead the brightest and best of Conservative Party working fruitfully together. Of those chums, few were closer to John Major than Norman Lamont and David Mellor. With a little help from them, it has all gone horribly wrong.

John Major himself seems to be above sleaze - it seems out of character with the man we now know - and this, perhaps, is why he has made such a poor fist of dealing with it. Early on, a pattern emerged. When a chum or a loyal colleague has got into a scrape, the Prime Minister's first instinct has always been to stand by him. His second instinct has been that there are some forces more powerful than loyalty - parts of the Tory Press, for example - and when they are at work it is prudent not to confront them. Thus the Prime Minister stood by his chum Mr Mellor through thick and thin until, suddenly, he didn't stand by him any more. Mr Lamont was backed, then dumped. Tim Yeo appeared to have support until he found he didn't.

This approach brought several unhappy consequences. Those on the receiving end of a scandal would often proffer their resignation, only to be told that the Prime Minister was right behind them. Deprived of their opportunity to resign with grace, most took their ultimate demise extremely badly.

Worse, the firm stand followed by the craven collapse reinforced Mr Major's image as the dithering Prime Minister. Worse still, it kept the sleaze stories running for weeks until a supreme paradox had arisen: Mr Major, an honourable and uncorrupted individual, was seen to be leading the most sleaze-ridden administration since the early 1960s. It wasn't all his fault: the party had been in power for so long that some of its MPs had lost sight of what was acceptable. In particular, a handful of has- beens and no-hopers had lost interest in government and decided to treat the Commons

as an adjunct to their business interests. For Mr Major, the Yeo case was a turning point. Thereafter the tactics changed. There was no more chummery and loyalty; no more us-against-them. No longer did ministers rage, as Mr Mellor had done on News at Ten, about the media trying to pick the Cabinet. Instead the whips' office issued a new ordinance: if in doubt, resign. Michael Brown, a whip, set the perfect example. One Saturday night the News of the World ran a story suggesting he had had a relationship with another man. He left the answerphone on until the Sunday papers had gone to bed, whereupon he resigned and promised a legal action. By Monday morning the story was dead.

Alan Duncan, a Parliamentary Private Secretary, quit instantly after press criticism of a property deal. Neil Hamilton, a minister at the department of Trade and Industry, tried to hold on to office. Cheekily, he cited the Prime Minister's example in suing the New Statesmen over allegations about his private life. If Mr Major could stay in office while pursuing a libel action, so could Mr Hamilton, the argument went. That defiance lasted a weekend after which the ministerial Rover was swiftly re-assigned. More recently, Jonathan Aitken took the policy a step further, resigning ahead of the latest tabloid revelations about his private life.

Another device, an old one, was employed: the inquiry. Last year, as the evidence mounted of something rotten in British politics, symbolised by cash-for-questions, lobbyists, undeclared interests and Sir Jerry Wiggin tabling an amendment to the Gas Bill in the name of another MP, Mr Major appointed the Nolan Committee.

Lord Nolan's first report quoted startling poll evidence of the public's distrust of politicians. In 1993 those "generally trusting them to tell the truth" numbered just 11 per cent (5 per cent fewer than in 1983). Nearly two-thirds of those people polled in 1994 agreed with the statement that "most MPs make a lot of money by using public office improperly" and those who thought that most MPs have high personal moral code number little more than a quarter. It is a measure of the extent to which some MPs have lost touch with public opinion that Conservatives have attempted to obstruct Lord Nolan's recommendation that their outside earnings should be put on the public record.

Before Nolan, there was Lord Justice Scott. His inquiry into arms-to- Iraq, now not due to report until the autumn at the earliest, arose elegantly from the whistle-blowing (if that is the word) of Alan Clark, who is now enjoying a lucrative retirement as an author, stirring scandals of a different sort. While Mr Clark is now safe, other politicians are not, and oddly the early indications are that in these cases Mr Major intends to return to his old habit of standing by his man. Two figures in Scott's firing line have not been fired, or more gently disposed of, by the Prime Minister: William Waldegrave and Sir Nicholas Lyell.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the air of corporate greed, particularly in the privatised utilities, has tainted John Major's Government. It may have been half the point of privatisation to give these firms their head, but whether he likes it or not, he has been unable to escape implication in the uglier consequences. The public still blames the Government, and this connection has been made all the easier by the presence of so many ex-ministers on the boards of these companies.