PM set to speak in libel court

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The Independent Online
John Major is set to become the first serving prime minister to give evidence in court, in the "cash for questions" libel action against the Guardian by the former minister Neil Hamilton.

What could be the most sensational libel trial for decades is now scheduled to open next Thursday, just ahead of the Tory party conference the following week.

Mr Major and his deputy, Michael Heseltine, are willing to go into the witness box during the trial, their lawyer told the High Court yesterday. Charles Gray QC, representing government ministers and departments, told Mr Justice Bell at a preliminary hearing that he wanted to "dispel any misunderstandings".

The Guardian's solicitors have subpoenaed Mr Major, Mr Heseltine, Richard Ryder, the former government Chief Whip and Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary.

Mr Gray said: "The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister and Mr Richard Ryder, the former Chief Whip, are concerned to assist and cooperate with this court in arriving at a resolution of the issues to be contested." All three were ready to give evidence in the witness box on "any relevant issues", Mr Gray said.

Mr Hamilton is suing the newspaper over an article in October 1994 claiming that he received pounds 2,000 a time for tabling parliamentary questions on behalf of Mohammed al-Fayed, the chairman of Harrods, and accepted pounds 4,000 of free hospitality in Mr Fayed's Paris Ritz hotel without declaring them in the Commons register of MPs' interests.

After initially vowing to continue as corporate affairs minister, Mr Hamilton later resigned. A few weeks earlier, Sir Robin had conducted an informal inquiry into allegations made by Mr Fayed via a third party. Tim Smith MP, another recipient of payments for questions named in the article, resigned his job as a junior Northern Ireland minister the day after the disclosures.

The political lobbyist Ian Greer is also suing, over the article's claim that he acted as an intermediary.

Yesterday's hearing was convened to investigate the non-release of some government documents to the Guardian's lawyers. The trial had been due to begin next Tuesday, but Mr Justice Bell ruled that the trial judge, Mr Justice Morland, should first decide which documents should be released.

Tories are horrified that the trial, which threatens to resurrect allegations of Tory "sleaze", has been scheduled for the party conference season. But the Guardian's lawyers say the timing was made by the plaintiffs, not the newspaper.

Mr Hamilton's ability to pursue his action was only made possible after he and supporters successfully campaigned for a change to the 1689 Bill of Rights to allow an MP to waive the rule under which freedom of speech in Parliament could not be questioned in court.

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