Tories can tackle sleaze on their own, says Major

n PM and Labour in angry exchange n Senior Conservatives want Wiggin 'let off'
Click to follow
The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR and Tony Blair were on a collision course yesterday over how to combat sleaze. In an exchange of insults, the Prime Minister accused Labour of "purely partisan posturing" in its insistence that the Nolan report on standards in public life should be implemented immediately and in full.

He said if Labour persisted in its threat to boycott a committee set up to consider Nolan, the committee would go ahead without the Opposition and include Tories only.

In response, Labour accused Mr Major of creating a smokescreen behind which he planned "to kick the Nolan recommendations into touch" and find an alternative which would suit Tory MPs better. Mr Blair's aides said Labour might force a vote on the issue this week.

The row came as senior Tory MPs speculated that Sir Jerry Wiggin, the MP who allegedly put down an amendment to a Bill in the name of another MP, could escape a Commons disciplinary committee. They say that because he lied to a fellow MP, rather than to the House, it is not a matter for the Privileges Committee. Sir Jerry returned from South Africa yesterday.

After a Commons debate last week, Mr Major said that Lord Nolan's proposals, which would restrict the paid consultancies that MPs may hold, should be considered by a parliamentary committee. Labour threatened a boycott. In a letter to Mr Major yesterday, Mr Blair said that the public would not understand why, after an independent inquiry had made "perfectly reasonable" recommendations, a new committee of MPs should be established as "a court of appeal".

In reply, Mr Major said: "They are more intent on turning this report into a party political football than ensuring it is properly considered by Parliament. I am not going to play that game." He said he would set up a committee composed entirely of Tory MPs if necessary.

He refused to spell out the remit for his proposed committee, but said: "We now intend to seek the views of a select committee. There has been no delay, nor will there be. The select committee will address the report and the range of questions that arise from it.Some aspects of Nolan do need careful consideration and accurate definition. They must be examined before specific resolutions can be put to the House. The new rules must be incontrovertible."

If Mr Major goes ahead with his threat to set up his committee, Tory backbenchers will insist on a dilution of Nolan's more controversial aspects: disclosure of income from outside work and the status of the independent parliamentary watchdog.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson-Smith, influential chairman of the Select Committee on Members' Interests, said Nolan's requirement to disclose outside earnings within certain bands was "fussy and intrusive". But an independent member of the Nolan Committee, Diana Warwick, said the public's reaction might be "What on earth have they go to hide?"

The Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, will rule tomorrow on what should happen to Sir Jerry Wiggin. Officials in his Weston-super-Mare constituency association will interview him later in the week. "We expect him to come and explain the situation to our executive after he has spoken to the House," said the association's vice-chairman, Peter Crew. "The feeling down here is one of surprise, mainly. They cannot believe he would get it wrong. That is why many people have given Jerry the benefit of the doubt until we hear more details from him."

However, David Hunt, secretary of the town's Conservative Club, said: "He should resign, but I doubt if he will, because of the Government's small majority."

l The new French President, Jacques Chirac, told ministers at his first Cabinet meeting yesterday that they must set an example to the French people. He scrapped a ministerial air service, banned motorcades and told ministers that they must stop at red traffic lights like anyone else. Any minister whose conduct is formally investigated by legal authorities will have to resign.

Alan Watkins, page 25

Leading article, page 26