Posse rides out to save poor little rich girl from mob

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The Independent Online
The mood was ugly. "Hang 'em, hang 'em high", snarled the mob. Some held torches aloft, while others prepared a makeshift gallows. Inhabitants of the Conservative benches looked on with fascinated horror. Labour had come for Dame Shirley and the Westminster five.

At their head a young, hotheaded leader challenged the grizzled sheriff to condemn the cowering prisoners. He would not. Pausing to spit a wad of chewing tobacco on to the head of a passing dog, Mr Major gently chid the younger man for his impetuousness. "Any sensible and cautious person," he said, "would await the outcome of the court case." Anyway, he added (without awaiting the outcome of anything) what about the "trail of inefficiency and corruption in Labour councils?".

The mob bayed at him. Had the vote rustlers not been condemned by the most rigorous investigation ever conducted into local government, under a procedure approved by the sheriff himself? So stretch their doggone necks! His anger on behalf of the accused rising, Mr Major said Labour's philosophy was to "take a smear, spread a smear and hope it will stick". In the circumstances no one asked him what an unsticky smear might look like. Not very smeary, I suppose.

Even the eventual departure of the sheriff failed to shift the crowd. But barring their passage now was the slight frame, pale face and large halo of John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment. In a performance of breathtaking sanctimoniousness Gummerclimbed the scaffold and - as he does with anything he stands upon - transformed it into a pulpit. He was, he said, "not prepared to comment upon matters now subject to the process of law". Honourable gentlemen "should not rush to judgment". "All of us ought to take a little heed . . . " "Defend the innocent, speak up for those who cannot make their case."

His palms coming together in prayer, his eyes cast upwards, he advised the Opposition to consider the plight of the Westminster Six and others. To an impious Liberal Democrat he uttered these words of almost saintly wisdom: "I have to say to the honourable gentleman very simply this. That I hope he is never in the position of having to accept the words of someone outside that he is no position to comment in any way upon". Amen.

Despite myself I felt the tears begin to prick my eyes. Poor Dame Shirley and colleagues, unable by virtue of their poverty or disabilities adequately to put their side of the story - either to a vicious press, or an adamantine auditor, and thus condemned after only the best part of a decade and endless hearings. And in England!

I wasn't alone. Emotional Conservatives like Bill Cash and Teresa Gorman rose to condemn the unfairness of a system that could see small folk, like the heiress to the Tesco fortune, forced to pay out millions at the say-so of some accountant. That was only supposed to happen to Labour councillors.

To an Opposition MP who ventured the thought that the councillors of Clay Cross - including a humble school caretaker - had not enjoyed much charity at the hands the Heath government in the early Seventies, the Rev Gummer gripped his Bible and declared that "every person in her Majesty's domain has the right to put the case, be they rich or poor". Although being rich does seem to help you put it over and over again.

Not that Mr Gummer was averse to a bit of hellfire. Far from it. But the sulphurous flames and pitchforks were not for those found guilty of wilful misconduct in the most serious case of political corruption for a generation. No, it was Mr Blair who was to be condemned for a "shameless betrayal of the legal system".

Shameless. What an appropriate word.

Scandal: pages 4,5