THE SCOTT DEBATE : Now we're safe and secure until the election, says F ox

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The Independent Online


The majority may have only been one, but jubilant Tories were quick to point out that it gave the lie to claims that the Government could only soldier on with the support of the nine Ulster Unionists.

Sir Marcus Fox, chairman of the influential 1922 backbench committee executive, declared: "We are safe and secure until we want to call a general election. I think this is a real turning point."

As Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said the Government had "rejected all offers of a clandestine deal", Tom King, a former Ulster secretary, praised John Major's determination not to crack under the pressure. "It is a tribute to the Prime Minister that whatever the problem he faced he didn't buckle.

"He made clear that as regards the peace process he is determined to deal fairly with all parties. There is a huge difference between a majority of 19 and a majority of one."

Opposition MPs were quick to point out, however, that Mr Major's renewed fortune would only last as long as he could rely on Ian Paisley and his two Democratic Unionist colleagues who stayed away from last night's vote. John Spellar, a Labour defence spokesman, said: "As far as many people are concerned, that is going to look dodgy."

The Prime Minister said: "I have consistently acted to open the public sector up to scrutiny since I became Prime Minister. I intend to continue to do so. Parliament has now discussed Sir Richard Scott's report. Now it's time to get down to the detailed work of taking forward Sir Richard's recommendations."

Robin Cook, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman whose Commons performance drew wide praise from numerous MPs, declared that the majority the Government could rely on was down to one. "We now go on to the by-election in South East Staffordshire to remove that last one. Tonight the Conservative Party stopped Parliament removing the stain of discredited ministers.

"It is now the people that must return the verdict on a discredited Tory party. After the appalling behaviour of the Government in response to the Scott report the country will not trust them again."

Donald Dewar, Labour's Chief Whip, said: "The Tories were saved by the rather odd combination of a Tory MP who has been criticising and abusing the Government and Mr Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party." He said it was "disappointing" to lose the vote so narrowly. "We won the debate hands down. The Government is very, very badly dented and wounded."

"I am sorry we didn't get the extra vote. There is no doubt in a free vote what would have happened." Labour would not drop the issue of the Scott report, he said. "It will haunt them for a long time."

David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, said: "We did that on the merits of the issues, which I think are fairly clear.

"It is extremely important to us as backbenchers ... that the integrity of the parliamentary process is maintained, and to have a situation where, as Scott said time and time again, Parliament was misled, and deliberately and designedly misled, is not an acceptable situation."

He said any meetings he had with ministers yesterdaywere at their request, not his, and the discussions were quite brief, and dealt with this and a number of other issues, but there was no question of deals being made.

He confirmed that the Unionists would decide matters "vote by vote". "We did consider tonight what might happen if the Government lost on this vote, and if there was a vote of confidence. If there was a vote of confidence, we would then have decided on quite different criteria, and might very easily have arrived at a very different decision, but that was another matter."

Tory rebel Quentin Davies said he had made his point quite clearly in the Commons during the debate when he intervened while Roger Freeman was addressing the House: "It went to the heart of the debate of whether the Government had been frank with the House of Commons. I agree with [Sir Richard] that it was not ... The matter has been decided in the Government's favour, albeit by one vote." He added, however, that this did not necessarily indicate that the issue had been laid to rest.

Rupert Allason, who voted with the Government, said he had been willing to do so because he had been given assurances of fundamental changes is the way Public Interest Immunity Certificates were used: "They halted PII certificates once and for all in the way they were used against the defendants in the Matrix Churchill trial.

"[This] was not a quibble. These PIICs were trump cards [in the Matrix Churchill case]. I spent three years trying to stop PIIs being used in this way, that is to say in the national interest.

"I intervened on Roger Freeman and got two fundamental undertakings. The emphasis is to be on disclosure of documents (even if with some sensitive documents they will be partly deleted) rather than the suppresssion of information.

"I am pleased to have used my position as a backbench Member of Parliament to extract maximum influence and get what I've been campaigning for three years. The bad old days of national security being quoted as a good reason to suppress documents which actually had nothing whatever to do with national security and more to do with administrative inconvenience - that's finished. The Government will never again be able to go to a judge and say these documents should be suppressed on national security grounds."

Peter Thurnham, who last week resigned the Conservative whip, said he had carried out his threat to vote against the Government because of the recommendations in the report. "The Government set the report up and then wanted to walk away from its conclusions," he said.