Je m'accuse, as the old order goes on trial

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The Independent Online
So, finally, he has got the message. John Major's invitation to a judge and a committee of the good to pass sentence on hazy rules and shoddy standards in public life is an extraordinary event.

For the Conservative Establishment that has run Britain for so long it is less J'accuse than Je m'accuse. Just days ago, to demand such an inquiry would have brought an angry mimickry of injured righteousness from No 10.

'Bring me your evidence,' the Prime Minister would have said, 'or stop spreading innuendo'.

Now, suddenly, such action has become 'imperative'. The political reasoning is clear. When Mr Major spoke about 'public disquiet about standards in public life' he was tacitly admitting what has become obvious to us all: that unless the most drastic remedial action is taken, these sleaze stories are powerful enough to lose his government a close- run election battle, even two years later.

Whatever Mr Major's feelings about government by newspaper, his attempt to dismiss sleaze story after sleaze story as unrelated and minor matters has failed. The Government has lost control of the political agenda. Is it too late for him to dispel the smell, too late for those Prime Ministerial trump cards, a solemn- faced Law Lord and an alibi from the Cabinet Secretary?

Mr Major himself remains untouched by gossip. As allegations of blackmail and conspiracy billow through Westminster, he can still assume that in any legal showdown with Mohamed Al-Fayed he will be given the benefit of public doubt. (Though even that is a finer judgement than once it was.) But he looked irresolute in not sacking Neil Hamilton quickly. And he must surely understand the generalities of the proposed inquiry will do nothing to clear the feeding- frenzy of a press searching for new culprits - bloody, turbulent waters in which the Home Secretary, no less, is struggling.

All that said, this inquiry sounds a serious and wide- ranging one, an act that is to be welcomed, whatever its provenance. But, as Mr Major has special cause to know, to announce a full and independent inquiry in the heat of political crisis is like pelting your accusers with boomerangs.

Whitehall is not yet quite calm about the publication of the Scott report into the Matrix Churchill affair, due next spring. This committee too will have its dangers for the Government. Each general point it makes will sound like an allegation.

If, for instance, it decides that ministers should not retire and sit on the boards of companies they helped privatise, or awarded contracts to, then it will be retrospectively condemning eminent Tories who did just that. How will they react? And when the voters draw their conclusions, does anyone think they will bother distinguishing between current Tory ministers and former ones?

Mr Major may believe that this is a process that will end the controversies and re-establish a bipartisan approach to standards in public life, with new codes for MPs, ministers, civil servants and quangocrats, allowing quiet to descend, and politics to return to normal.

Such a fresh start is of course needed. But it suggests that the issue of sleaze can be easily disentangled from the Conservatives' long period in office, or the behaviour of some of its leading ideologues. It further implies that the Opposition will allow these matters to be declared 'above politics'. But Tony Blair is well able to combine statesmanlike hauteur with some low lunges. It would be surprising if he, or Paddy Ashdown, allowed this committee to become the Conservatives' escape-hatch.

Yesterday's announcement was good news for the country. It remains to be seen whether it is good news for the Government.