Rising tide of scandal renews risk to Major: Yeo: another child - Tory quits over house deal - Wife 'blames split on MP's male friend'

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The Independent Online
A RISING tide of scandal is threatening to engulf John Major. One member of his government, Alan Duncan, yesterday resigned after newspaper reports about a council house purchase and the disgraced former environment minister Tim Yeo admitted to fathering a second illegitimate child.

The resignation of Mr Duncan, parliamentary private secretary to Brian Mawhinney, the Health Minister, was the second in a week and he is the fourth person to leave the Government over alleged misconduct since the Tories were re-elected only 20 months ago.

Further allegations of behaviour in conflict with the Government's 'back to basics' moral crusade surfaced last night in the Sunday Times, which quoted claims by the wife of David Ashby, MP for Leicesteshire North- East that he had left her because of a friendship with a man.

Sylvana Ashby, who is 51 and Italian-born, is said to have blamed the breakdown of her 28-year-old marriage on her husband's friendship with 'a professional man whom she named'. Mr Ashby, 53, and a member of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, is reported to have moved out of the family home several months ago, 'saying he did not want to live with her any more'. The newspaper quotes sources close to Mr Ashby as denying 'any suggestion of an improper relationship'.

These allegations came after the disclosure that Mr Yeo, Tory MP for South Suffolk, had fathered an illegitimate daughter at the age of 22 to a fellow student at Cambridge in 1967. The child was adopted 'almost immediately', but Mr Yeo has spoken to his former lover in recent days because their relationship was about to become public knowledge.

Senior officials of his South Suffolk constituency association met in emergency session last night, and one of them involved in the moves that compelled Mr Yeo to resign his ministerial post said: 'The overwhelming feeling is that we do not want him as a Conservative candidate at the next election. Most people would prefer him not to stand.'

The former environment minister appears to be reconciled to the prospect that his political career is all but over. But local Tory party officials fear he could punish them by resigning his seat in a last act of defiance, triggering a by-election that would leave his 17,269 majority vulnerable to the Liberal Democrats.

The latest revelations shocked Tory ministers and backbenchers alike. Mr Duncan's purchase of a council house through an elderly tenant was condemned by one junior minister as 'the unacceptable face of personal capitalism'. David Evans, vice- chairman of the influential executive of the Tory back-bench 1922 Committee agreed that it was morally wrong but added: 'I am very sad and disappointed. Alan Duncan is held in the very highest regard by his backbench colleagues. This is a real blow to us. I'm so sad, I can't tell you.'

Fresh questions about Mr Major's leadership are now being raised among jittery MPs waiting for Parliament to reassemble on Tuesday. Senior Tory backbenchers said the Yeo affair and Mr Duncan's abrupt departure would reopen the debate about the Prime Minister's future. A challenge to his position in the autumn could not be ruled out.

John Carlisle, Tory MP for Luton North, said any other minister who found himself in a similar situation to those who had resigned should quit without being required to do so by Mr Major, who had 'acted too slowly in the Yeo case'.

Inquiries by the Independent on Sunday have established that Mr Major knew about the Yeo scandal many months ago, before he launched his 'back to basics' campaign at the Tory conference in October. He was aware of the impending publication of the story two weeks before it appeared. But he did nothing to avert the political storm that broke during the Christmas holiday and which continued for 10 days until Mr Yeo reluctantly agreed to resign.

A Mori poll in today's News of the World shows that 52 per cent of electors believe that Mr Major handled the Yeo affair badly and only 26 per cent that he handled it well.

Mr Duncan, millionaire MP for Rutland and Melton, yesterday admitted profiting from the 'right to buy' legislation by buying at cut-price a council house next door to his own in fashionable Gayfere Street, near the House of Commons. He loaned the elderly tenant, Harry Ball-Wilson, cash to buy the house at a pounds 50,000 discount from Westminster City Council in 1990, and then bought the property from him as soon as the law permitted last June.

Mr Ball-Wilson, aged 78, has a lifetime rent-free occupancy of 17 Gayfere Street but is said to spend most of his time in the United States with his American wife.

Mr Duncan said from Davos, Switzerland, where he is on a ski-ing holiday, that there was 'no question of impropriety or anything illegal in the transaction'.

The property had been seriously dilapidated, and suffering from subsidence and sewage problems which he had put right. Mr Ball-Wilson's family had agreed to the transaction, and he was 'entirely happy with the arrangement and the improvement in his living conditions'. No 18 Gayfere Street, which Mr Duncan bought in 1986, was the operational base for Mr Major's key campaign group in the battle to succeed Mrs Thatcher when she resigned in November 1990.

Mr Duncan said he insisted on resigning 'against advice', in the light of publicity generated by the media, purely to avoid embarrassment to Dr Mawhinney. 'People may wish to consider whether it is reasonable for the press to behave in this way,' he added.

Mr Duncan's brief period in the position may well have set a record. He was appointed on 22 December.

On BBC1's David Frost programme this morning, the Prime Minister will try to recapture the fading momentum of his 'back to basics' campaign.

Labour last night gleefully seized on the Government's latest troubles. The Shadow Home Secretary, Tony Blair, said: 'Back to basics is now in a state of total and abject confusion. It varies not just from day to day, but from minister to minister, from Tory backbench MP to Tory backbench MP.'

Mr Major's problems look certain to be compounded later this week when the District Auditor publishes a report on allegations that Conservative-controlled Westminster Council sold homes in marginal wards to Tory supporters to increase the party's backing in council elections that were held in 1990.

Dame Shirley Porter, then the leader of the council, and ex-councillor Barry Legg - now Tory MP for Milton Keynes West - could face surcharges running into millions of pounds if found guilty of wilful misconduct. Both have consistently rejected the allegations.

Tory shame, page 2; Inside story, page 14; Leading article, page 18

(Photograph omitted)

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