Hamilton row is 'poisoning politics'

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The Independent Online
Allegations about Tory MP Neil Hamilton accepting payment from a political lobbyist were "poisoning British politics", and the Prime Minister yesterday insisted that he wanted the matter settled within weeks, if possible.

But Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown said that instead of "huffing and puffing", John Major should answer questions raised by yesterday's revelation that a Government whip had sought to fix a 1994 Commons investigation into the Hamilton affair.

Thumping a table to underline his point, Mr Major said on BBC television's Breakfast with Frost that he had told Sir Gordon Downey, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards: "This matter is poisoning British politics, because of the way it is being slanted by people.

"I want it settled, I want it settled." Attacking the "kangaroo court" processes of the press, he said he would like the matter resolved within "two or three weeks", and certainly "well this side of a general election".

Allegations of a perversion of the course of justice, he said, were a "perversion of reality".

But the force of the Prime Minister's remarks was undermined by a number of serious criticisms that then followed.

Yesterday, a leaked memorandum written by David Willetts when he was a Government whip, suggested that he had been approached by Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith, former Conservative chairman of the old Members' Interests Committee, about the Hamilton case. Mr Willetts, who has since been promoted to Paymaster General, says in the memorandum that Sir Geoffrey would "like our advice" about what to do about the Hamilton allegations.

"He is now expecting to receive a formal complaint about Hamilton receiving money etc. He could: (1) argue now sub judice, get committee to set it aside, or (2) investigate it as quickly as possible, exploiting good Tory majority at present. We were inclined to go for (1) but he wants our advice."

Sir Geoffrey, who is now a member of the new Standards and Privileges Committee, told yesterday's BBC radio's World this Weekend that there had been no "blocking mechanism". That, he said, was "ludicrous".

But Mr Ashdown told the same programme that while he had absolute trust and confidence in Sir Gordon, "it doesn't matter how good the person is, if the procedures have in the past been tainted and we are to use the same procedures again".

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