Inside Parliament: Tories decline invitation to condemn

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Indy Politics
For the 61 minutes he faced the Commons yesterday, John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, endured perhaps the strictest self-denying ordinance of his political life. Despite repeated invitations to condemn nepotism, corruption or plain incompetence in Labour councils, Mr Gummer would pass no adverse comment at all.

Familiar targets like Lambeth, Haringey, Liverpool, and Monklands were offered up by Tory backbenchers - any one of which is normally guaranteed a knee-jerk outburst of ministerial rage and ridicule. But all Mr Gummer would say was: 'I don't think that it is helpful in this House to rush to judge . . . I am going to try 'to yield not to temptation'.'

This parliamentary novelty was the inevitable flip side of the defence adopted by John Major and his ministers on the Westminster City Council scandal and the District Auditor's finding that Dame Shirley Porter, when leader, and nine other councillors and officials gerrymandered the local electorate to ensure a Tory majority.

'If the allegations are proved then I shall have no hesitation in condemning the behaviour,' Mr Gummer said in a statement to MPs. 'Meantime, the rights of those accused must be protected.'

Jack Straw, Labour's local government spokesman, said that given the Conservative Party's attitude on law and order, it was perfectly possible to condemn a crime without pre-judging the issue of who was guilty. Why didn't Mr Gummer practise what he and other ministers preached on law and order?

'If the findings are upheld, this will represent political corruption and gerrymandering on a scale unknown in modern Britain,' he insisted, as Tory backbenchers howled protests. 'There is no parallel for corruption on this scale. What it shows . . . is that the Conservative Party in Westminster is rotten and amoral to the core, and they have abandoned the most basic principles of public morality.'

With the auditor's findings coming on top of Mr Major's other 'back to basics' woes, MPs were in distracted state. Speaker Betty Boothroyd had repeatedly to call for order during Question Time. 'There's too many noisy conversations going on. Settle down,' she directed the House.

But to little effect. Gleeful Labour members chanted 'Westminster' when Mr Major entered the chamber and supportive questions from Conservative backbenchers about employment and business orders were greeted with laughter.

John Smith, the Labour leader, asked the Prime Minister to 'unequivocally condemn the gerrymandering and wilful misconduct which has cost pounds 21m of taxpayers' money in what his party has described as a flagship council'.

Mr Smith wondered if it had been 'wholly wise' for David Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment, to endorse Westminster as 'one of the Tory's stunning successes and a source of cheer for every Conservative'. As Mr Major sidestepped each call for condemnation, Mr Smith pointed out that the auditor's investigation had taken four years.

'What has been revealed is a devastating example of corruption and the abuse of power by senior members of the Conservative Party.'

Mr Major maintained it would be wrong to comment on the case while the auditor was still considering it. 'Let me say unequivocally that if the reported allegations about the council turn out to be true then of course I condemn such activities, just as I would condemn malpractice in any council, wherever it occurs.

'We should wait and see precisely what the outcome may be. Otherwise we are in danger of assuming people have committed malpractice until they are proven innocent, which I would have thought Mr Smith, as a barrister, would recognise is no way to pass judgement.'

Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, during exchanges on Mr Gummer's statement, observed that in Tory eyes 'all councils are innocent until they are proven to be Labour councils'. Peter Kilfoyle, Labour MP for Liverpool Walton, recalled 47 Liverpool councillors being 'damned' by ministers for years when they were surcharged and disqualified for not setting a rate in time.

Mr Major told MPs he had 'no adverse comments' to make on Lord Justice Scott's handling of the arms-to-Iraq inquiry as he was twice pressed on Lord Howe's criticism of him as 'detective, inquisitor, advocate and judge'.

Paddy Ashdown, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, described the former Foreign Secretary's denunciation on Wednesday as 'astonishing' and asked whether Lord Justice Scott still enjoyed the Prime Minister's confidence. Gerald Kaufman, who shadowed Lord Howe for Labour, said that it had been a 'scurrilous attack' on the judge.

But Mr Major said that the Government had appointed Lord Justice Scott to conduct an independent inquiry and it was up to him to draw up his own procedures. 'I have no adverse comments upon the way he is doing it.'

From public morality in Westminster City Hall, Tony Banks, Labour MP for Newham North West, diverted briefly to personal morality in the Palace of Westminster - earning a rebuke for 'extremely bad taste' from Miss Boothroyd in the process.

During exchanges on forthcoming business, Mr Banks noted there were no condom machines in the House. 'I realise their installation would come rather too late for some Tory MPs, but the more circumspect amongst us would probably welcome such an installation.

'Alternatively, of course, we could seek some advice from Mrs Lorena Bobbitt, who has a very direct way of dealing with members.'

(Illustration omitted)