Inside Parliament: Backbenchers remain keen to wallow in mire: Major rejects sleaze allegations - MP questions minister on Mark Thatcher

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Indy Politics
John Major yesterday fought to stay above the allegations of sleaze besetting his party, telling the Commons that 'wrongdoing' in public life had to be rooted out wherever it occurred.

The Prime Minister's first despatch box exchange with Tony Blair, the new Labour leader, may have been marginally less 'yah boo', but backbenchers remained wholly unreconstructed and as determined as ever to keep pushing Mr Major's head back into the mire.

Anne Campbell, Labour MP for Cambridge, asked if Baroness Thatcher 'broke the code of conduct for ministers when her son, Mark Thatcher, made pounds 12m from the Al Yamamah arms negotiations' with Saudia Arabia.

'I have no doubt that Lady Thatcher acted with complete propriety throughout her long and distinguished period as Prime Minister of this country,' Mr Major replied. If Ms Campbell had any evidence to the contrary, she should produce it rather than 'peddling' remarks like that.

With Paddy Ashdown keeping out of the Question Time, probably assuming that there would not be much limelight left over from the Blair-Major exchange, Paul Tyler got a chance from the Liberal Democrat benches. 'Can the Prime Minister reassure the House that his administration is now a sleaze- free zone?' asked the MP for Cornwall North.

Mr Major said he was as concerned as anyone that there should be the highest standards in public life. 'I approve of corruption no more than I assume Mr Tyler does and I will not accept it.

'I believe our public servants and our public institutions are acknowledged to be among the best in the world. To maintain that reputation in administration and in politics, wrongdoing will have to be rooted out wherever it is, and I will ensure that it is.'

Finally, there was the matter of Lord Archer, author and former deputy chairman of the Tory party - and absent from his usual Question Time vantage in the gallery reserved for peers.

John McFall, Labour MP for Dumbarton, said Lord Archer owed the public an explanation about his share dealings and pressed for publication of the Department of Trade and Industry report. Lord Archer ordered 50,000 shares in Anglia Television, resulting in a profit of pounds 80,000, four days before a takeover and when his wife, Mary, was a board member.

The Prime Minister told MPs that he welcomed the opportunity to make the position entirely clear. 'It is appropriate I should do so.' He said the decision of Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, against taking further action under the insider-dealing legislation was based on the DTI inspectors' report and independent legal advice.

There was no provision under the Financial Services Act for inspectors' reports to be published, as had been made clear when the legislation was before Parliament. 'Investigations are undertaken on that basis. Evidence is given on that basis. And it would not be right to change the position retrospectively.'

If there was ever any prospect of the Mark Thatcher affair fading away it vanished when Tam Dalyell, Labour MP for Linlithgow, added it to his list of crusades.

Mr Dalyell, who hounded Margaret Thatcher over the sinking of the Belgrano in the Falklands war, is now missing no opportunity to raise her son's role in the pounds 20bn Al Yamamah deal.

As Nicholas Soames, Minister for the Armed Forces, opened the second day of the defence debate, Mr Dalyell intervened and asked why, in 1984, Sir Clive Whitmore, then permanent secretary at the MoD, found it necessary to go to the then prime minister to 'express the disquiet' of the ministry about Mark Thatcher's activities 'in relation to commercial operations with Saudia Arabia'.

'We are entitled to some comment,' Mr Dalyell asserted. But Mr Soames told him Sir Clive had already denied the veracity of the story.

The forensic Mr Dalyell is not so easily put off. Returning to the bone later, he said the 'denial' in an MoD release was 'very oddly worded', saying Sir Clive did not see the Prime Minister and that 'it was not felt necessary for official concern'.

Pointing out he had asked, 'Did Sir Clive go to the Prime Minister?' Mr Dalyell tried again: 'Was there any contact on this issue, official or unofficial, between the permanent secretary at the MoD and the then Prime Minister?'

He believed there was 'massive corruption at the heart of the British state'. Many 'serious people' believed Mark Thatcher did indeed amass his fortune as a result of arms procurement. If the Prime Minister wanted wrongdoing rooted out, he had an obligation to address the issue seriously.