Moments That Made The Year : Tory antics that redefined the meaning of sleaze

Despite Nolan and Scott, the scandals continued, writes David Aaronovitch
In the early, uncomplicated days of "back to basics", the word "sleaze" came to be associated with bonking. The rubric was roughly this: Tory politician bonks someone not his wife; is found out and exposed; wife stands by him; ridiculous or even apocryphal detail emerges (toes, telephone calls, Chelsea shirt, woman was 16-year-old researcher, woman was a constituent, woman was man); politician resigns; Prime Minister regrets the trivialisation of politics; archbishop regrets lack of moral lead by politicians.

This was sleaze that required no great effort of intellect or expenditure of time on the part of those who commented upon it (nor indeed, upon the part of those who participated in it). It made good, simple news copy day after day. Alas, it was too good to last. 1996 furnished us with only one ministerial death through fornication, and the minister unsportingly resigned before we had time for the toes and the archbishops.

What we had instead was the 1,800 pages of the Scott report into the arms-for-Iraq affair. Published 39 months after the inquiry was set up, the report itself furnished lazy journalists with precious little headline material. This was because the Devil lay not in the accusations against individual ministers, but in the detailed picture of how policy is formed, altered, applied and communicated in Britain.

What Scott attacked was the culture of secrecy and the lack of adequate constitutional restraints on the executive. Important stuff, but not sexy.

What was just as revealing as the report itself was the way the Government chose to handle its publication. By giving the opposition three-and-a- half hours in a guarded basement of the Department of Trade to read the report before it was unveiled in the House, and by using that time themselves to produce a spin upon it (a spin later condemned by Scott) suggesting that they had been completely exonerated, the Government behaved arrogantly and shabbily.

It worked, too. In the debate 10 days after the publication - and despite a spectacular speech by Labour's Robin Cook, the Government lost the argument, but won the vote - with a majority of one. And that was that.

With Scott out of the way, we all took a sleaze break until the party conferences. MPs used the time to defy their party leaders, public opinion and the fatuous rumblings of the moralistic press to vote themselves a substantial pay increase. No strings (such as a reduction in the number of MPs, or evaluation of the work they did) were attached.

Then, as autumn fell, the sudden abandonment by the Tory MP Neil Hamilton of his libel suit against the Guardian (arising out of the cash-for-questions affair) brought two new names to all our lips. The first was that of the grandaddy of Westminster lobbyists,Ian Greer. A man of great and (according to some) inexplicable generosity, Mr Greer had sent largish sums of money in the direction of Mr Hamilton and others - for no particularly good reason, he told the world.

Embarrassed MPs of all political colours were suddenly discovered to be involuntary recipients of Mr Greer's unsolicited largesse. The Labour health spokesman Chris Smith, for instance, had had 200 notes delivered to his local party to assist in fighting a general election campaign. Why had this money been donated? No one knew. What had Mr Greer (a lifelong Conservative) hoped to get for his outlay? Nothing at all: some gave to Oxfam, some gave to Chris Smith.

The second name was that of the cerebral MP for Havant, David Willetts, whose note - written when a junior whip - suggesting that the Tory chairman of the House of Commons privileges committee investigating Mr Hamilton "wanted advice", indicated government intervention in the workings of an independent body.

Mr Willetts, like William Waldegrave (criticised by Scott) an intellectual sharing a vessel with the rough deckhands of politics, seems to have made three mistakes. The first was to be seduced by the assumption that there was no real problem in whips talking to committee chairmen about the progress of such sensitive inquiries. This assumption is a very low-level and minor form of corruption, and one that typifies a party that has been in power too long.

The second was to have written it down. And the third was to have attempted to explain it away with a schoolboyish evasion that insulted the intelligence of at least one of the Tories on the committee, Quentin Davies, who had voted against the Government over Scott. Mr Willetts' famous phrase of self-exculpation, that "want" had meant "stood in need of" (as in the Austen phrase "must be in want of a wife") rather than "required", demonstrated a rather desperate dishonesty.

Meanwhile, the Government showed what it had learnt from the handling of the Scott report, by leaking both the contents of the Cullen report on the massacre at Dunblane, and its proposed legislative response, while once more denying the Opposition a chance to examine Cullen until the day of its publication.

And so we limp towards the general election. Aspects of Lord Nolan's 1995 report have been implemented (notably the revised register of interests), but Parliament functions no better than it did, the executive is largely unscrutinised, and those who hold power are obstinately determined to hang on to it. From where I sit, day after day, it is hard to see anything other than crushing defeat - followed by the utmost pressure on a new administration - achieving any change.