The story of Major's Britain is not so much one of crime and corruption , more of greed - sexual or financial - among those who feel the normal moral rules do not apply
A FEW YEARS AGO, an Italian newspaper published an album of political sleaze. It took the form of a comic book, a series of coloured cartoon- strip episodes showing all the most monstrous and imaginative dramas of corruption staged by Italy's rulers over the previous 40 years.

The book was a wild success. The form it chose was just right, for in every episode the same familiar cast of seamy characters appeared as they appear in Doonesbury or Desperate Dan: the agile, ageless Christian Democrat prime ministers who had been pulling the strings for more than a generation. Bribery, girls, unexplained murders, more bribery - new adventures on every page, but the same merry, leering old faces.

The sleazology of Major's Britain we present here would not work as a comic album. The time-span is far shorter, the element of crime pervading Italian scandals is absent, but, more importantly, there is no permanent cast. A few names recur - Lamont, Aitken, Mellor, for instance. But the big figures of the period like Douglas Hurd and the Prime Minister himself are scarcely present and even Norman Lamont, once Chancellor of the Exchequer, is listed for silly scrapes rather than for serious transgression. On the surface, this is not a story of systemic corruption. Instead, it is about an apparent upsurge of greed - sexual and financial - among Tories in the lower ranks of government and below who seem to think that normal moral rules do not apply to them.

This does not mean that there is no systemic political corruption in this country. We have not written about party funding because the rules here are so lax that there is little need to breach them. The biggest political scandals in France, Italy or Germany are about illegal party funding by big business or organised crime. Here anyone can give anything to a party, and whether donors can get a commercial favour or a peerage for their cash is a matter of private understanding. That does not acquit our system. It is secretive, unfair and wide open to abuse, but as yet it has not been regulated and criminalised. Much the same can be said about the packing of quangos with party supporters, another blatantly sleazy area.

Out of these cases - fewer than 40 - at least 12 are about sex. In none of them was there any suggestion that an affair affected the politician's capacity to function professionally (apart from David Mellor, reportedly "knackered" after nights with his actress). Contrast Germany, where a few days ago the first minister in the whole history of the Federal Republic fell because of sex allegations. Heinz Eggert, a Protestant pastor who became Interior Minister of Saxony, resigned after several junior officials accused him of homosexual harassment. The press reactions were - for us - startling. Die Zeit, for instance, wrote that "the private lives of politicians and their sexual orientation are none of our business. They owe us convincing policies, and nothing else! Anyone who asks for more commits his own sleaze offence - hypocrisy."

The late Tom Driberg MP, in a couple of nights spent cruising the gay haunts of the West End, would commit more sexual "offences" than all in this list. It is unlikely that MPs enjoy more extra-marital sex than they did a generation ago. What has changed is, firstly, the decay of mechanisms for keeping things out of the papers - which included, above all, the enforced silence of women. Secondly, the media have deepened the English confusion between political morality and moral politicians. As soon as the stench of financial sleaze began to spread from the later Thatcher governments, the journalists narrowed the mesh of their nets. Minor idiocies and debaucheries were now fished up to lie beside genuinely ominous reports like the Mark Thatcher saga or Lady Porter's operations in Westminster. They bulk out the catch of sleaze, like seaweed arranged round lobsters on the slab.

Some half-dozen of these cases are about export-led deceit, mostly to do with illegal arms trading. Here again, standards have changed. Where foreign government orders are concerned, bribery and the misleading of Parliament have always gone on. But today the connivance of civil servants, secret agents and even junior ministers can no longer be taken for granted. Servants of the Crown have more self-respect and personal independence than in the past. Things leak out. Public scrutiny is more effective. But a peculiar arrogance prevents this Government from understanding this. Is there any connecting element, then, in this bundle of different scandals labelled "sleaze"? One is personal greed - or rather, an incredible confidence among minor Tory politicians that political life is just one more opportunity to fill your pockets and slake your appetites. Such people, who often entered the Commons during the "go for it' 1980s, are importing the moral standards of the City into Parliament. The censured "cash for questions" MPs at least knew that what they were doing ought to be kept quiet. Perhaps the most worrying of all these cases is that of Lord Wakeham, who broke no rule or convention by moving from the ministry in charge of privatisation to the bank which arranged it.

The common factor, in the end, is not a sleazy spirit at the heart of Downing Street. It is the inability of John Major's leadership to get a grip on followers still half-drunk on the power of the 1980s, and to explain to them that the world and the British people have changed. The Conservatives have made the laws for 16 years. They have come to believe that they also make the rules.