Lyell gets a battering from MPs over Scott

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, yesterday ran the gauntlet of angry Opposition calls for his resignation over the Scott report and insisted that his integrity remained "unquestioned".

John Morris, his Labour shadow, accused him of "breathtaking incompetence" over his handling of the Matrix Churchill trial which triggered Sir Richard Scott's arms-to-Iraq inquiry.

"Where does the buck stop?" Mr Morris demanded. "Should you not go?"

Government business managers judged Sir Nicholas the victor in the stormy encounter with angry Opposition critics - four of whom demanded his resignation - at his first Attorney General's questions since publication of the report last week. But their first priority yesterday was action to prevent Peter Thurnham, the MP for Bolton North East, from resigning the Tory whip. Such a move would diminish John Major's fragile overall majority from four to two.

Mr Thurnham is one of three Tory backbenchers to have expressed reservations about the Scott criticisms of William Waldegrave, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and Sir Nicholas, fuelling fears of a backbench revolt after Monday night's Commons debate on the report.

Yesterday Mr Thurnham, who is due to see John Major this week, was given what was understood to be a firm yet sympathetic exhortation to stay in the party fold by Alastair Goodlad, the Tory Chief Whip.

The whips have gone out of their way to convey sympathy over one cause of Mr Thurnham's unhappiness - the failure of the Westmoreland and Lonsdale constituency association to interview him as a potential candidate for the next election despite his strong connections with the area. According to a government source, the association insisted on maintaining its autonomy, brushing aside a suggestion from Conservative Central Office.

As to the prospect of defeat on Monday night, the Government was leaving nothing to chance yesterday, despite some bold predictions that it could even have a majority in double figures. That scenario, however, is likely to require support from the Ulster Unionists. It would take only three Tory MPs to vote against the Government's motion, or five abstentions, to cause a defeat.

As Mr Waldegrave and Sir Nicholas sought out David Trimble, the Ulster Unionists' leader, in the Commons tea-room, Tory backbenchers were told that any concerns about the report could be taken to Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, or even to the Prime Minister, in the run-up to Monday's crunch debate.

Inside Parliament, page 8