BACK TO OLD SCHOOL FOR WALDEGRAVE'S SUPPORTERS

Dominance of Eton and Oxbridge speakers in Scott debate leads to Opposition bias charge. Stephen Goodwin reports

Had speakers in Monday's Scott debate been required to wear their old school ties, the suspicions aired in the Commons yesterday would have been aroused much sooner. For of the 13 Tories who spoke from the back benches, six of the most loyal were old boys of Eton - the same public school attended by William Waldegrave, one of the two ministers most at risk in the arms-to-Iraq affair.

And five of the same baker's dozen went to Oxford University - as did both Mr Waldegrave, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and his partner in the dock, Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General.

This preponderance of Old Etonians and Oxford chaps was spotted by Labour MP Barry Sheerman (Hampton Grammar and the LSE) who asked the Speaker Betty Boothroyd if she had come under "undue pressure" from Government whips.

Noting that the debate was heavily oversubscribed, with more MPs wanting to take part than could possibly be called, Mr Sheerman said the majority of Tory speakers were also ex-ministers - nine out of the 13.

The Old Etonians were Douglas Hurd, the former Foreign Secretary and Mr Waldegrave's former boss; Paul Channon, the former Secretary of State for Transport; Tim Sainsbury and Richard Needham, both former trade and industry ministers; Michael Alison, a former Northern Ireland minister; and Henry Bellingham, MP for Norfolk NW.

Along the corridor in the House of Lords it was a similar story. Lord Hailsham of St Marylebone (Eton and Oxford) gave his personal endorsement of Mr Waldegrave, who he knew through his family and as a Fellow of All Souls. "He is and always has been the soul of honour," said the former Lord Chancellor. Three other Old Etonians added their support and still more speakers had been to Oxford.

Mr Sheerman contrasted the lists of speakers with John Major's early ambitions of creating "a classless society". The public would not only be horrified at the unwillingness of any minister to take responsibility for misleading Parliament, the Huddersfield MP said, but they would see the way the debate was conducted as "further proof that the Conservative Party is still dominated by those whose privileged backgrounds lead them to believe that survival of members of their club is far more important than the survival of a health parliamentary democracy".

Dismissing the MP's suspicions, Miss Boothroyd (Dewsbury College of Commerce and Art) said the Commons was one Parliament where there was no pressure, "undue or otherwise", on selecting speakers.

"I don't look up Who's Who to see whether they went to Dewsbury Grammar School, or Oxford or Cambridge," she said.

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