Major battles a tide of sleaze: Ministers fight to steady Tory party and save 'basics'campaign amid rumble of scandals and resignations

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR flies back to Westminster from the Brussels summit today to a Tory party rocked by a wave of scandal and turmoil in the private lives of politicians which showed no sign of abating last night.

Senior ministers fought to steady the party by defending the Prime Minister's 'back to basics' philosophy despite continuing signs of division within Cabinet ranks over whether it had been intended to apply to personal morality.

Mr Major also faces another reshuffle in the middle ranks of the Government - the second within a week - as a result of Lord Caithness's resignation as Transport Minister in the Lords after the suicide of his wife. Several newspapers report today that Lord Caithness had a relationship with a woman who has worked as a secretary for members of the Royal Family and senior Conservatives.

Mr Major is expected to meet senior colleagues on his return in a concerted effort to contain the cumulative impact of the resignations of Lord Caithness, Tim Yeo, former Environment minister - over the disclosure that he had fathered a child in an extramarital affair - and Alan Duncan MP, who stood down as a PPS after admitting he had benefited from the purchase of a Westminster council house.

The Government's problems were compounded yesterday by admissions by David Ashby, MP for Leicestershire West, and his wife, Silvana, about their marital difficulties. Mr Ashby confirmed he had shared a bed in a French hotel with a male friend, but denied a homosexual relationship.

The Tory business managers' determined strategy of focusing the minds of MPs returning from their Christmas break on bread and butter issues such as law and order, education and the economy was threatened by fears of fresh disclosures about the personal behaviour of politicians.

Some members of the Government privately admitted that the wave of revelations was damaging Mr Major's administration.

And John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, said he could not remember a time when things had been so difficult for the Government.

Mr Patten added: 'John Major has had a pretty difficult seven or eight days, when we have had all these events crowding in about people's alleged improprieties here, there and everywhere, the tragic death of Lady Caithness on Saturday.'

But William Waldegrave, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, rejected comparisons - widely canvassed in Westminster yesterday - with the Profumo scandal which gripped the Macmillan government 30 years ago.

He said: 'A whole series of eccentric events descend on a government and the Government must get on with the real business of governing the country and this will be soon forgotten.'

Speaking on Channel 4 News, he said: 'There is one real, terrible tragedy in all of this: the death of Lady Caithness, which I would like to keep completely separate from all the rest of it.'

Mr Waldegrave said that the rest was 'almost the stuff of pantomime . . . We seem to have gone potty. The Government has better things to do than lecture people about private morals and the great British press has better things to do than measure the width of beds in France.

'What the Prime Minister meant (by 'back to basics') was that we want to try to get the Government closer to people in language people understand. Bring the Government back to its core business and get on with it.'

The message that the Prime Minister's theme was never intended to be a crusade on personal morality is also expected to be spelt out in a big speech which Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, is expected to make at the end of the week.

But John Redwood, the Secretary of State for Wales, who first raised the issue of single mothers, said: 'The moral and single parent issues are important to the Government, as many of us have said. They predate the 'back to basics' policy . . . the main point we were making was that absentee fathers should be asked to support or make a contribution to support their children.'

Some Tory sources acknowledged fears that some homosexual MPs might risk exposure as lobbying pressure mounts to secure a lower age of homosexual consent during the committee stage of the Criminal Justice Bill, which opens in a fortnight.

Homosexual affair denied, page 2

Letters, page 15

David Blunkett, page 17

Andrew Marr, page 17