The poisonous goodbye

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The Independent Online
The last Prime Minister's question time of this Parliament ended in deep and angry bitterness yesterday as John Major, Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown traded poisonous personal insults over the cash-for-questions inquiry.

With the Prime Minister blocking any further investigation into the main sleaze allegations against Tory MPs until after the election, the Labour leader accused him of leaving a stain on Parliament.

Mr Major replied that his opponents were engaged in a political stunt to divert attention from Wednesday's unemployment figures which fell to a six-year low.

But he then concluded the exchanges with Mr Blair by running through a breath-taking list of Labour double-standards that delighted the Conservative benches, and enraged the Opposition.

Earlier, Michael Heseltine set the tone for the day, telling BBC Radio 4's Today programme that Labour did not "give a toss" about the cash- for-questions issue.

In a later Sky News interview, the Deputy Prime Minister appeared to libel Mr Blair by saying, wrongly, that he was under investigation by Sir Gordon Downey, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

At the heart of the matter was whether the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee should be given the time to consider Sir Gordon's report, expected by next Tuesday, into allegations levelled against 10 Conservative MPs.

Today's prorogation kills all further action until after the election, and Mr Blair yesterday offered Mr Major two ways of keeping the investigation alive; a postponement of prorogation, or a short Bill giving the committee power to carry on meeting.

The offer was rejected out of hand by the Prime Minister, who feared that if the report was delivered to the committee, it would be leaked "in a prejudicial way", against the interests of the House and of natural justice.

With the support of some Tory members of the committee, the Prime Minister also said it was "improbable in the extreme" that there would be enough time to complete an investigation before Parliament was finally dissolved on 8 April.

That was not Labour's view, and even Ian Duncan Smith, a loyalist Conservative member of the committee, said only that it was "unlikely" they would have enough time.

The Labour leader said Mr Major had made an unequivocal promise last October, to do all he could to have the investigation findings published. With Labour MPs bawling, "Sleaze, sleaze" at the Tory benches, Mr Blair said: "Has this Parliament not ended as it began, by a government breaking its word?

"If you fail to have this report published ... it will leave a stain on the character of your Government that will only be erased by a new government with a fresh mandate that will restore confidence in our public life for good." Mr Major shouted back: "The stain, if stain there will be, is on a Labour frontbench that have smeared and smeared and smeared again. You have traded in double standards from the moment you took up office."

He then added a clearly-rehearsed litany of counter-accusations - "This is the Labour leader who sells policy to the trade unions for cash, who refuses to comply with the code of practice on party funding, who calls for party openness but won't publish the secret funds of your own office, who attacks share options but takes money from millionaires for your own party, and attacks businessmen and asks them to fund things for you, who flew Concorde and failed to declare it, who has a Deputy Leader who spends a weekend at a five-star hotel and doesn't declare it, and who flies to the other side of the world to do newspaper deals and never admits to them. If there's any double standards they sit there, on the Opposition benches."

Joining the fray, Mr Ashdown asked the Prime Minister: "Are you now to be the only person who will use a technicality to stand in the way of truth?"

Mr Major replied coldly: "You end as pious and pompous as you have been throughout this Parliament."

Earlier, the Standards and Privileges Committee issued an interim report, which had been the source of great expectation - but proved to be a damp squib.

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