Tories stand by their men

Constituencies rally behind MPs at centre of sleaze row
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The Conservative Party, reeling from a fresh sleaze onslaught, yesterday went on the offensive - rejecting further cash-for-questions allegations, while local parties rallied behind the MPs at the centre of the scandal.

The four MPs who are standing again - Tim Smith, Neil Hamilton, Sir Andrew Bowden and Michael Brown - seemed to retain the support of their constituencies, even though all of them admitted transgressing parliamentary rules and despite growing disaffection within the national party.

One minister told The Independent: "There's a real sense of frustration about what is going on. A lot of my colleagues no longer have an awful lot of sympathy with them. I deeply resent being implicated by association." John Major, however, fought off claims that he had been dilatory in sacking Mr Smith - who last night received the support of his Beaconsfield constituency on a motion of confidence - when it emerged that he had accepted undeclared payments from Mohamed al Fayed, the owner of Harrods.

The Prime Minister responded angrily and speedily, by saying that he had taken the quickest possible action when, in September 1994, he had been alerted to the fact that Mr Smith, then a junior Northern Ireland minister, had accepted bundles of pounds 50 notes to ask parliamentary questions.

In spite of Mr Major's denial, the damage to the Conservatives' first week of the election campaign had been done, and many of the other sleaze allegations, revealed in leaked papers from Sir Gordon Downey's inquiry into the affair, remained unchallenged.

The constituency parties are feeling surprisingly kindly disposed to the MPs. Pat Smith, agent for Sir Andrew Bowden, MP for Brighton Kemptown, said: "We totally and utterly support him. We are absolutely certain that it isn't correct." Mr Hamilton's Tatton constituency also gave him overwhelming support at a meeting last night. He said later: "I told them the truth." The constituency president, Mrs Jan Verney, said: "Everything went very well. There was not a word of dissent."

The publication of extracts by the Guardian from the evidence given to the inquiry infuriated Sir Gordon. He issued a statement saying: "I deplore the action of certain newspapers and others in selectively leaking parts of the evidence to my inquiry." Sir Gordon implied that the leaks may have been misleading, because "oral evidence taken in my inquiry was itself subject to a process of correction and further explanation by witnesses".

He did not say what action would be taken against the newspaper, although he said that its use of the evidence sent to it was "against the interests of natural justice" and "a contempt of Parliament".

Mr Smith, in a letter to Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker of the House, said: "I believe this to be a denial of the fundamental principle of natural justice and a contempt of Parliament and I should be grateful if you will let me know what action you are able to take in this matter."

The Guardian is clearly hoping that when Parliament reconvenes, a Labour- dominated Standards and Privileges Committee would take a more lenient view of its leak than the present one, which has a Tory majority of one.

Sir Gordon's criticism was immediately seized on by Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister. "It is increasingly obvious that Mr Tony Blair and the editor of the Guardian have been operating in tandem. I call on Mr Blair to confirm that he respects the view of Sir Gordon Downey and joins me in condemning the actions of the Guardian in selectively leaking evidence in contempt of Parliament," he said. However, the Labour Party steadfastly refused to condemn the leak and continued pressing for the publication of Sir Gordon's report, which Mr Smith also now backs but which will clearly now remain locked away until the new Parliament assembles in May.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4, Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, defended the publication. "One of the nauseating aspects of this whole thing is that MPs have been confessing dishonesty in private, then going on television in public saying, `I am innocent, please vote for me'," he said.

Mr Major took the unusual step of sending over his No 10 press secretary - who is supposed to be a non-party political figure - in order to brief journalists about his version of events.

Mr Major said that as soon as he had heard of the allegations concerning four of his ministers in a private meeting - with Brian Hitchen, the then editor of the Sunday Express, on 29 September 1994 - he had set up an inquiry conducted by Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary. Sir Robin reported back to Mr Major on 17 October, the Monday after the Conservative party conference, and after a bit more investigation the following day, it was agreed that Tim Smith would have to go.

It was to have been announced later that week, and it was a "coincidence" that the Guardian published the story on 20 October, the day Mr Smith resigned.