Major denies sleaze report cover-up

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The Independent Online
The prorogation of Parliament tomorrow should be revoked, giving the Commons power to publish a report into the cash-for-questions affair, Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown told the Prime Minister last night.

John Major was expected to brush aside the demand - in spite of his insistence, last October, that he wanted the issue to be speedily settled by Sir Gordon Downey, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, whose report would be ready to show to MPs on Tuesday.

But there was confusion at Westminster last night when the highly-secretive Commons Committee on Standards and Privileges - to which Sir Gordon reports - said that it would publish a report, at noon today, "on that part of its work which has been completed but not yet reported to the House". It is possible that the report will clear those MPs, possibly two dozen, against whom allegations have been made but no evidence provided - but it will not draw the sting out of the cash-for-questions accusations.

Earlier, Tony Newton, the Leader of the Commons and chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, told MPs that even when Sir Gordon's report was delivered, his committee "would have to consider it, provide any MPs who were criticised with an opportunity to make representations, and consider those."

The suggestion being made was that even if the Government acceded to the Opposition demand for a delay in prorogation there would still not be enough time for the committee to complete complex deliberations in time for a definitive cash-for-questions report to be published before Parliament is dissolved on 8 April. The full process could take months.

Sir Gordon's report is thought to be highly critical of a number of Tory MPs, including Neil Hamilton, who yesterday went on the offensive, saying that he also wanted an early publication of the report in order to clear his name. Mr Hamilton said: "I've lived with these allegations for two- and-a-half years, I've seen my name dragged through the mud. I want to set the record straight."

Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, reacted angrily to Opposition accusations that the Prime Minister had expedited prorogation - freezing all parliamentary activity - in a calculated exercise to kill off Sir Gordon's sleaze report. "Any suggestion that the Prime Minister or any other member of the Government has sought to influence the timing is a slander," he said.

Mr Major told party workers in an election pep-talk at Conservative party headquarters: "Labour's tactic is, 'a smear a day will keep the truth at bay'." On the campaign trail in Newbury, Berkshire, he described as "utterly false" Opposition claims that he had deliberately acted to prevent Sir Gordon's report coming out before polling day.

But Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, said the Prime Minister could adjourn Parliament, putting it into recess, instead of insisting on prorogation - which would allow the Committee to order publication of Sir Gordon's report.The timing of the election, would not be affected because there is still more than a fortnight to go before the dissolution.

Mr Hamilton has consistently denied accepting cash for asking questions on behalf of Mohamed al Fayed, the owner of Harrods, but a libel action against the Guardian, which had made these allegations, collapsed last October. Mr Hamilton, speaking on Sky News and brandishing his evidence to Sir Gordon, accepted that he had made "some errors of judgement in the past" but that he was "not guilty of any dishonesty, let alone corruption".

Last night, Mr Ashdown, leaders of the nationalist parties, and the Shadow Cabinet put down a Commons motion calling for the prorogation of Parliament to be postponed, so that the report could be published.