Focusing on what he called the "malicious" leaking of extracts of Lord Justice Scott's draft report, John Major said he was making no judgements until ministers had responded to the draft and the report had been completed.
The Minister for Agriculture had "made it perfectly clear he rejects the observations contained in the draft extract and has said that he is confident that he will persuade the inquiry that those views are wrong and inaccurate", the Prime Minister told an excited House.
Leaked sections of the report accuse Mr Waldegrave of giving MPs information which was "untrue" and "apt to mislead" over policy on arms sales to Iraq when he was a Foreign Office minister in the late 1980s. The damning charge was raised by John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, as Tony Blair's absence at Lord Wilson's funeral gave him the first opportunity of a Question Time shot at Mr Major.
Pauline Prescott was in a side gallery to watch as her husband approached the issue crab-like, pointing out that it was the Prime Minister who set up the Scott inquiry and asking for an assurance that Sir Richard still enjoyed his confidence.
"I asked Sir Richard to carry out this report and I have confidence Sir Richard will carry out that report thoroughly," Mr Major replied. "When he has finished his report I will consider the report. When I have considered it I will comment on it."
Mr Prescott recalled Chancellor Kenneth Clarke saying on BBC Question Time last year that he would resign if the inquiry found he had acted improperly, and asked if this would apply to any minister who the inquiry found knowingly to have misled the House.
But Mr Major repeated he would draw his conclusions when the draft had been responded to, when a final report had been produced and when he had studied it. "At that point I will make my judgment on the basis of the facts - not now, as Mr Prescott does, on the basis of his prejudices."
The Labour deputy came back again: "Can the Prime Minister make clear that if the inquiry in its final conclusions finds that any minister has misled this House, they must be asked to resign?"
But Mr Major avoided the invitation to make a statement of principle and repeated that he would await the final report.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman, MP for Lancaster, said she knew of "no more honourable man in politics" than Mr Waldegrave, while other Tories directed their ire at the BBC. Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith, a vice chairman of the 1922 Committee, said the "disgraceful leaking" of the inquiry proceedings and their exploitation by the BBC and the Opposition was a "denial of natural justice".
Mr Major reacted sharply to shouts and gestures from Labour backbenchers that the source of the leak was the Government itself. "I wish I knew who had actually maliciously leaked this selective aspect of the report," he snapped.
Alan Beith, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, wondered how, if Mr Major had made no judgement, it had been possible for reports to emanate from Downing Street on Monday of his full support for Mr Waldegrave's denial of the leaked conclusions. "Is the Prime Minister ever going to tell us the truth about all this, or is the Government going to behave true to form and never take responsibility for anything that goes wrong?"
A stock Major tactic is to accuse detractors of "smearing". It was used yesterday against Robin Cook - said to be smearing Mr Waldegrave in every studio in the land - and was then deployed as he charged Labour with distorting his recent remarks on the cause of the house price spiral of the late 1980s. His second line of defence appeared to be to blame Lord (Nigel) Lawson, the Chancellor.
Doug Hoyle, Labour MP for Warrington North, said that Mr Major, as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was the "main architect of the inflationary budget of 1988". Instead of blaming "unfortunate householders" he should accept responsibility for their calamity.
But Mr Major denied he had said householders suffering negative equity were themselves responsible. As to being the architect of the 1988 Budget: "I rather fancy the then Chancellor might dispute it."
Gordon Prentice, Labour MP for Pendle, said Mr Major was content to allow mortgage misery for millions while "shuffling responsibility on to anyone but himself". As Labour MPs barracked his reply, he attacked them: "You just want to take the political opportunity to smear again and again and again and again. It is the single constant factor about the Opposition front bench and back bench - never mind the facts, let us live with the myth."
A move to reintroduce corporal punishment for young people who commit crimes of violence was rejected by 153 to 58. Warren Hawksley, MP for Halesowen and Stourbridge, claimed the support of 70 per cent of the public, according to recent opinion polls. His Corporal Punishment (Reintroduction) Bill would have put thugs between the ages of 10 and 18 at risk of 12 strokes of the cane - "20" shouted another Tory backbencher - or the birch.
But David Hanson, Labour MP for Delyn, said the idea was barbaric. "I don't think it beholds any Tory MP to come to the Commons after 16 years in Government to complain about the rises in crime."
Unruly behaviour is not, however, confined to the streets. As Tory backbenchers jeered Mr Hanson's call to tackle the causes of crime, the Deputy Speaker, Dame Janet Fookes, called for order. "We will have a little discipline now, hopefully without the aid of corporal punishment," said the former schoolteacher.Reuse content