Minister tried to thwart Hamilton sleaze inquiry

David Willetts, the Paymaster General, sought to influence a parliamentary inquiry into the cash-for-questions Tory MP, Neil Hamilton, it emerged last night. The revelation could shake the Government to its foundations on the eve of the Tory Party conference.

The minister is a rising star in John Major's government and the party's intellectual guru. He discussed, with a senior Conservative member of the Commons Select Committee on Members' Interests, how they should treat the investigation, which was likely to embarrass the Government deeply.

A written account of the talks discloses that two options were mentioned: using the Conservatives' in-built majority on the committee or using the law of sub-judice to forestall a damaging outcome.

Mr Willetts's intervention is being seen as prima facie evidence of an unprecedented interference by the Government in the role of Parliament.

In cases of MPs' misconduct, Parliament acts as a court. Any attempt to interfere with the independent processes of its disciplinary committees could be open to severe criticism.

The new evidence identifying Mr Willetts's part in the Hamilton affair may reach right into Downing Street.

The document had been obtained by the Guardian under subpoena for its defence in Mr Hamilton's libel action against the newspaper, from which he suddenly withdrew last week on the eve of the case coming to court. The paper cannot publish the document because it is required to return anything obtained under subpoena without public disclosure of its contents.

However, it has now been sent to the four most senior Privy Councillors: John Major, Tony Blair, Paddy Ashdown and the speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd, by the Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger. It is political dynamite, and Mr Ashdown has already called on the Prime Minister to investigate what he describes as a possible perversion of parliamentary procedures.

The document, say sources, is "evidence of a strictly private communication between a member of the Government" - Mr Willetts, then a Tory whip - and Sir Geoffrey Johnson-Smith MP, chairman of the committee.

Last night Sir Geoffrey admitted having a conversation with Mr Willetts but denied that he had been influenced: "There is no reason why people should not, in confidence, get some idea of what is happening, because rumours begin to spread. Certain people like to have some intimation of what we are doing."

Mr Willetts, 40, who could not be contacted last night, is MP for Havant. He is often spoken of as Mr Major's "favourite minister". He headed Margaret Thatcher's Downing Street Policy Unit in the mid-Eighties.

The memorandum which details his contacts with Sir Geoffrey dates back to 1994. The Select Committee on Members' Interests had been asked by the Liberal Democrat MP, Alex Carlile, to investigate allegations that Mr Hamilton had taken cash from Harrod's owner Mohammed Al-Fayed in return for asking parliamentary questions.

Before the inquiry started the Government assigned a whip, Andrew Mitchell, to the committee. He played down the need for a full inquiry. Labour MPs, enraged by the Government's tactics, walked out and refused to sign the Tory majority report, which said that Mr Hamilton should have declared an expenses-paid stay at Mr Fayed's Ritz Hotel in Paris. But the report failed to give a ruling on the cash-for-questions issue because Mr Hamilton had launched his libel action.

Mr Ashdown yesterday wrote to the Prime Minister saying: "I hope you will agree with me about the gravity of the issues this document raises."

Inside Story, pages 16 & 17

Leading article, page 20

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...