Tories mete out rough justice: Party chiefs stand by 'back to basics' after PPS resigns over flirtation with researcher

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The Independent Online
TORY party managers stood firmly by John Major's 'back to basics' policy last night after Hartley Booth, MP for Finchley, had become the first casualty of a new regime under which politicians whose personal lives cause embarrassment will be expected to leave the Government forthwith.

Mr Booth's immediate resignation as a parliamentary private secretary after the exposure of his relationship with a female history of art student, underlined Mr Major's pointed warning to the 1922 Committee this month that he would put 'country and party' above the personal feelings of individual MPs.

Although Mr Booth appears to have jumped before he could be pushed, senior members of the Government were quick to make it clear that he could scarcely have hoped to remain, given the publicity surrounding his liaison - which Mr Booth continued to insist last night involved 'no sexual impropriety'. One minister said: 'The quicker they go, the more hope they have of coming back some time in the future.'

There was a measure of sympathy in senior Tory ranks for Mr Booth, given the junior nature of his job as PPS to the Foreign Office minister Douglas Hogg, the relative triviality of his 'offence', and what ministers see as the relentless pursuit by newspapers of salacious stories about MPs' private lives.

But his swift resignation was seen with grim satisfaction as exemplifying a new rough justice intended to limit the damage of any future revelations of a similar kind.

That was underlined last night in a statement by Mr Booth, who said: 'Following my immediate resignation to save any embarrassment to the Government, my principal and main concern is for my three children and my wife, with whom I remain together happily married, and also my friends and supporters, particularly in the Finchley and Friern Barnet Conservative Association from whom I have had overwhelming support.'

Peter Temple-Morris, MP for Leominster, said: 'Mr Booth would be the last one to want to embarrass the Government in any way at all.'

He told BBC Radio 4's The World this Weekend: 'He has set an example to his superiors in Government. There are one or two examples of people who, if they had behaved in the same way, things would not be as they are today.'

Mr Major, who flies to Moscow today, is determined to continue refocusing the 'back to basics' theme he unveiled at last October's party conference on the economy, law and order and education.

But he does not intend to bow to calls - echoed yesterday by Mr Booth's constituency chairman - to scrap the theme. It was pointed out that Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, had used the term in his speech to the Young Conservatives last weekend, and ministers would continue to do so.

As MPs absorbed the revelations of Mr Booth's 'kissing and cuddling' with his former researcher, Emily Barr, 22, a student at the Courtauld Institute, Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, mounted a strong counter-attack on the Sunday Mirror for its disclosures. Mr Lilley said it had been a matter for Mr Booth, who inherited his seat from Baroness Thatcher, whether he resigned, and added: 'For newspapers to start harassing and pillorying people like that seems rather silly. It is up to their wives and themselves to sort out their problems. I am not condoning infidelity or implying it in this case.'

Ron Thurlow, chairman of the Finchley constituency association, said that Mr Booth had resigned because of his strong Methodist principles and to save the Government embarrassment. 'I think he's acted honourably. If anything he's acted too honourably. After all, is a friendship with a girl really a resigning matter?

' 'Back to basics' is dead. The Conservatives should drop it and get on with ruling the country.'