Inside Parliament: Labour basher forced to eat humble pie as sleaze re-emerges as bone of contention: Speaker promises report on 'MPs for sale' claim - Major gives verdict on Naples summit - Sceptics dominate EU expansion debate

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Indy Politics
Two familiar bones were unearthed in the Commons yesterday and gnawed again with a certain relish. After a brief interrment, sleaze and Euroscepticism were back.

Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, was first to raise the issue of MPs accepting money in return for tabling questions to ministers, suggesting that the Mother of Parliaments risked gaining a reputation as 'the whore of parliaments'.

The prospect of some words by Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, on allegations that two Tory MPs had been suspended from their posts as parliamentary private secretaries to ministers following a newspaper report that they accepted pounds 1,000 each in return for asking written questions overhung the first two hours of yesterday's business.

Mr Flynn managed to exploit Conservative embarrassment over the affair by linking it with sports sponsorship by tobacco companies during National Heritage questions.

'It is damaging for our young children that business sponsorship of tobacco is displayed on the uniform and kits of sportsmen and women. Would it not be better for business sponsorship of MPs to be displayed on our suits, so the country could know who is filling the pockets of MPs?'

There was no label on the suit of Graham Riddick, Conservative MP for Colne Valley, when he rose, presumably to offer some kind of explanation for his behaviour. If the allegation against him and his colleague David Tredinnick, MP for Bosworth, is correct, he should have been sporting the tag: 'Sponsored, unwittingly, by the Sunday Times.'

The two MPs initially accepted an offer of pounds 1,000 from a reporter posing as a businessman. Both tabled questions, but deny doing anything wrong.

Mr Riddick's attempt to explain himself - or possibly attack the messenger - followed a brief statement by Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, saying she already had the matter under 'urgent and active consideration'. Effectively stifling further discussion, Miss Boothroyd promised to report to the House as soon as she could.

Bill Walker, Conservative MP for Tayside North, described the Sunday Times reporter, who also approached him, as 'a confidence trickster . . . an agent provocateur'. Michael Connarty, Labour MP for Falkirk East, inferring hypocrisy, recalled a recent charge by Mr Riddick of 'corruption and dubious practices' on Monklands council. Unsophisticated Labour- bashing is his stock in trade.

But Miss Boothroyd cut short everyone who pursued the subject, including Mr Riddick himself. Looking uncharacteristically humble, he managed 'Can I voice my strong support for the suggestion that an inquiry is set up into . . .' before Miss Boothroyd shut him up: 'Order, order. I have heard quite enough.'

Wily operator that he is, Dennis Skinner got a better run at the subject following John Major's statement on last weekend's Naples summit. The Prime Minister spoke approvingly of a return to 'the informality and free debate, which characterised the early meetings of 20 years ago'.

There had been wide agreement on the policies necessary for the world's leading economies, he reported. 'Free trade, flexible labour markets, deregulation, policies that help and encourage unemployed people back into work, investment in education and training.

'These themes will be familiar to the House, because they exactly match the policies this Government has been pursing. They were all warmly endorsed by the G7.'

Upsetting the Prime Minister's easy ride, Mr Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover, gave a theatrical sigh: 'Another summit, another jamboree . . .' Why had not Mr Major told them about 'those two Tory MPs with their noses in the trough?' (Richard Ryder, the Chief Whip, suspended the MPs from their posts as ministerial bag carriers after talking to Mr Major in Naples.)

'On the subject of deregulation,' Mr Skinner went on, 'why should big business have to carry this on-cost of lining the pockets of Tory MPs that have to put down questions? In some parliaments, the rule is, one MP, and one job only. And if you can't manage on pounds 31,000 a year, you shouldn't put up for the job.'

Mr Major said these matters had not been discussed at Naples. 'Mr Skinner, no doubt, thinks these summits are enormous fun. Set against the attraction of a cricket final at Lords, they pale to a certain extent.'

Other troublemakers took over for the day's main business, former Tory Euro-rebels dominating the Second Reading of a Bill to approve a treaty enabling Austria, Norway, Finland and Sweden to join the European Union.

More than half the 30 Conservative backbenchers present as Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, introduced the EU (Accessions) Bill had voted against him during the passage of the Maastricht treaty legislation.

However, though they have lost none of their near-paranoia about national sovereignty, the latest Bill is safe. Widening the EU is regarded by some as a means of weakening it, added to which the Government now dances so closely to the sceptics' tune that they are hardly rebels at all.

Hugh Dykes, MP for Harrow East and chairman of the European Movement, appeared the heretic yesterday. Wearing an EU tie, he told the House: 'The striking feature of the four countries now joining, is they have all very strongly reiterated their own adherence to deeper integration as the only way of taking the community forward.'

Mr Hurd portrayed the newcomers as free traders who, like Britain, believed the EU should be a union of diverse nation states. Sweden, Austria and Norway would also be net contributors to the EU budget, reducing Britain's contribution by some pounds 300m over the first six years of accession.

Nonetheless, he was interrupted by a succession of old party foes. Bill Cash, MP for Stafford, said the Foreign Secretary had not mentioned the Scandanavians' 'very strong traditions' on social policy, union rights, consumerism, the environment and a single currency. Christopher Gill, MP for Ludlow, quoted the German ambassador to Moscow saying that 'national sovereignty is becoming irrelevant and meaningless, for all that many still cling to it.' This was a view in the German foreign office.

Mr Hurd said he felt 'sad' for Mr Gill. Chancellor Kohl had acknowledged the 'old idea of a united states of Europe was not going to work'. The Bill pointed in the changed direction. 'Unthinking centralism' was a theme of the past.

Welcoming the accession of 'four friends', Jack Cunningham, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, said Mr Hurd looked a relieved man when he sat down. He had 'rediscovered the fault lines in his own party'.