Professor Tony King's defence of the Nolan recommendations against a backbench Tory attack came as Tony Blair, the Labour leader, dealt a severe blow to government hopes of all-party agreement to its plans to off-load the Nolan proposals on to a committee of senior MPs.
Mr Blair told the Welsh Labour Party conference in Llandudno that the plan would make Parliament "a laughing stock". He declared that Mr Major was "responding to the panic of his backbenchers" at the prospect of disclosing the outside income they earn as MPs and a new commissioner to scrutinise MPs' conduct.
He added: "If this issue were now to be shelved after a clear recommendation from an independent committee it would bring Parliament and politicians into disrepute and would show the complete inability of the Prime Minister and his government to make a decision and stick to it." As some ministers privately acknowledged the damage that could be inflicted on Mr Major by the gulf between the proposals and the views of many Tory backbenchers, senior Labour figures were considering putting forward their own motion to implement the report. The option of using an Opposition Day motion this Wednesday has not been ruled out.
Professor King said that after the row over the Tory MP Sir Jerry Wiggin's tabling of an amendment to a Bill in the name of another Conservative, he had expected Tory critics of Nolan to agree, however reluctantly, to the report. "They have signally failed to do that. I am very surprised," he said.
Sir Jerry, whose case is expected to be referred to the Commons Speaker, flies back from South Africa this weekend to face discontent among his constituency activists. David Hunt, secretary of the Weston-super-Mare Conservative Club, said: "They all feel as though they are let down if their MP comes into disrepute. He should resign if it is true." Professor King said he was "certainly shaken" by the reaction of Conservative MPs in Thursday's debate on the recommendations. When it was put to him on BBC Radio's World at One that Mr Major was now faced with the prospect of reining in the Nolan committee, he said: "If I can say so in the nicest possible way, that is his problem. He set up the committee last autumn, he decidedwho the members were going to be . . . he gave us our remit." Lord Nolan himself made no comment on Thursday's debate, in which his proposals for the Commons were fiercely attacked by a series of Tory backbenchers led by Sir Edward Heath, the former Prime Minister, but sources close to his inquiry did not discourage suggestions that he broadly agreed with Professor King. Mr Major, touring his constituency, strongly defended the Government's tactics, saying that Lord Nolan's proposals for the Commons were "very far reaching" and needed "proper consideration" by the Commons. "The most important thing is that we get these proposals right," he added. Labour continued to make it clear yesterday that it would not co-operate with a committee which had not been given a clear remit to decide how rather than whether to implement the Nolan proposals for the Commons.