Inside Parliament / The Attack on Sleaze: Major accuses Blair of playing gutter politics

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The Independent Online
The Prime Minister yesterday accused Tony Blair of 'stepping down into the gutter' as the latest ramifications of the sleaze saga led to a traditional Question Time slugging match between the party leaders.

John Major refused to name the intermediary who he says conveyed allegations of impropriety against ministers by Mohamed al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods, and he confirmed that Barbara Mills, the Director of Public Prosecutions, has passed papers on the approach to the Metropolitan Police.

With the Commons fixated by the affair, Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, used an earlier appearance at the dispatch box to rebut 'scurrilous allegations' that he lied to Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, over the bill for his two-day stay at the Ritz hotel in Paris.

'I hope this House, which is a very fair-minded place, will accept my assurance and the Cabinet Secretary's assurance and really put an end to this hysterical atmosphere of sleaze journalism by the Guardian.' Neil Hamilton, the sacked minister for corporate affairs, was conspicuously present in the chamber as Mr Blair demanded to know the basis on which the Prime Minister dismissed ministers - 'the truth of the allegations or merely the number of them?'

Watched by his wife, Christine, from a side gallery, Mr Hamilton spent an hour chatting to right-wing colleagues. One of them, Teresa Gorman, MP for Billericay, even gave the ex-minister a kiss.

Noting that the day had brought another report from Sir Robin exonerating another minister (Mr Aitken) of impropriety, Mr Blair said: 'A week ago there were unsubstantiated allegations, he said, against the trade secretary and Mr Major insisted he stayed. A few days later there were allegations that were supposed to be unfounded, as he called them, and Mr Major insisted that he went.

'Now there are new unsubstantiated allegations against the Chief Secretary and he stays. What is the basis on which the Prime Minister decides to retain or dismiss government ministers?'

Mr Major replied: 'I understood that when Mr Blair became leader of the Labour Party we were going to see a new style in politics. I had not expected to see him step down into the gutters of public life quite so soon.'

Sir Robin's examination showed there was nothing for Mr Aitken, or Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, to answer to. 'Mr Blair should be ashamed of using the privilege of this House to raise those matters in this way.'

But the Labour leader said the idea that after the resignation of two ministers in a week (Mr Hamilton and Tim Smith) Labour should not be able to ask questions was 'absurd'. The Butler reports were 'plainly inadequate' since Sir Robin was not able to see the person making the complaint against the ministers, Mr Blair said. In addition, Mr Major had forbidden the Nolan committee from looking at the allegations and the Commons privileges committee was deadlocked because Tory MPs wanted it to sit in private.

'The Prime Minister will only get a grip on this problem when he understands that there has to be a proper method of investigating the allegations of Mr al-Fayed in which the public has confidence, and that means an open, full investigation.'

With backbenchers on both sides in full cry and Speaker Betty Boothroyd appealing for order, Mr Major snapped back: 'We now know where we are with you. We know precisely what way you want to play politics.' The only thing holding up the privileges committee was Labour's non-attendance, 'wholly against any precedent in this House'. Mr Blair, as a lawyer, knew that investigations were in private.

Coming back for a third time, Mr Blair said: 'It is not me that has dismissed two of his government ministers. It is him. Furthermore the normal procedure in courts of law is that hearings are in public.' No Labour MP was saying whether the allegations were true or false, merely that they should be investigated.

The Prime Minister replied: 'Mr Blair says that the matters may not be true, they may be unsubstantiated gossip, and yet he wants them peddled in public so that people's reputations may be harmed . . . If this is to be the new, clean politics, let's have the old dirty politics from Labour we have been used to.'