John Major was last night confronted with a destabilising backlash from his own backbenchers against the Nolan committee's proposals for outside scrutiny of Commons conduct and full declaration by MPs of their outside interests.
The full scale of entrenched Tory backbench hostility to the committee's far-reaching plans for reducing Commons "sleaze" was exposed in an acrimonious debate after the Prime Minister had resisted Labour demands to come out publicly in favour of the recommendations.
Sir Edward Heath was cast in the unusual role of champion to those Tory MPs normally most hostile to the former Prime Minister when he attacked the Nolan proposals for the Commons and insisted: "There is such a thing as the privacy of the individual." In defence of the Commons' centuries- old system of total self-regulation, Sir Edward, Father of the House, cited Commons action in the scandal over corruption by the architect John Poulson in the Seventies and the recent "cash for questions" as evidence that its own disciplinary procedures were swift and satisfactory.
Sir Edward insisted that public unease was much less about the behaviour of MPs than it was on other aspects of national life. And with Lord Nolan and his committee on Standards in Public Life watching the debate from the public gallery, he added: "Lord Nolan is an admirable judge, but he seems to lack a certain worldliness."
The warm reception for Sir Edward came despite the latest row over the the proxy tabling of a legislative amendment by Sir Jerry Wiggin, MP for Weston-Super-Mare, which fuelled the demands yesterday from the Opposition to act with haste on all the main Nolan proposals.
As expected, David Hunt, the Minister of Public Service, made a series of announcements at the opening of the debate that the Government would be implementing most of the main Nolan recommendations covering ministers, civil servants and quangos - including the rule that ministers taking private-sector jobs would be subject to the same requirement as top civil servants seeking permission from an advisory committee.
But there were signs last night that ministers may consider postponing implementation of the two contentious Nolan proposals by turning the issue over to a senior Commons committee. At least one prominent Tory backbencher has indicated he is prepared to resign rather than continue in Parliament and declare his full earnings.
Tory backbenchers urged Mr Hunt not to take precipitate action on the Nolan proposals for disclosure of earnings from outside sources and a new parliamentary commissioner to investigate allegations of conduct and then report the outcome to the Commons Privileges Committee. In one intervention Anthony Steen, MP for South Hams, drew cheers from his own side when he declared: "I deeply resent the inference in Nolan that all of us are crooks."
The fierce backbench reaction poses a dilemma for Mr Major. He could face down a backbench revolt by insisting that ministers and the rest of the Government payroll join a large majority of the Labour Party in approving the two Nolan recommendations when the Commons eventually has to vote on the issue. But doing so risks fuelling unrest among a sizeable minority of backbenchers in the run-up to November when he could be challenged for the leadership.
If he fails to take that course that delay could give Labour another potent weapon with which to attack the Government.
There were shouts of "yes" from the Tory benches when Tony Blair, the Labour leader, asked whether it was possible Mr Major would overrule the recommendations of the committee which he had himself established. But the Prime Minister declared it was a matter of courtesy to the Commons to listen to the debate before reaching a conclusion.
At the entrance to the Commons, Alan Duncan, Tory MP for Rutland and Melton asked Lord Nolan: "Don't you realise what you're doing? You could end by destroying all professional interests in Parliamentary life."
Commons report, page 10