McAlpine demand splits political funding inquiry: Labour MPs want former Conservative treasurer to give evidence

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Indy Politics
TORY AND Labour members of the Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs are set to clash tomorrow over whether to invite Lord McAlpine, the former Conservative Party treasurer, and Chris Patten, the former chairman and now Governor of Hong Kong, to give evidence to its funding inquiry.

As the Government braces itself for yet another damaging resignation speech, likely today from the former Northern Ireland minister, Michael Mates, Labour's ruling National Executive Committee is expected to agree at its meeting tomorrow to repay just over pounds 11,000 donated by Charilaos Costa, a Greek Cypriot businessman who fled fraud charges two years ago.

Meanwhile, at a meeting tomorrow, Labour members on the select committee will press for Lord McAlpine and Mr Patten to be examined. 'If Lord McAlpine can write a newspaper article and be interviewed on television, then why not by us?' one said.

Mr Patten's arrival from Hong Kong tomorrow follows a string of revelations over Tory fund-raising there in the run-up to the 1992 general election.

But the patience of some Tory members is wearing thin. Having agreed only reluctantly to mount the investigation, there was anger last week when it was overshadowed by the explosive Labour-initiated Commons debate on party funding which took place last Tuesday, sandwiched between the Liberal Democrat and Labour evidence sessions.

'We have far more important work to do,' one Conservative member said, adding: 'Every organisation can point to someone who turns out to be not what it expected. Octav Botnar (a Tory party donor and the former head of Nissan UK) gave pounds 8m to a children's hospital.'

Even without the impending row, pressure of other committee commitments might delay any examination until just before MPs rise for the summer recess on 22 July, or even until the autumn. Labour members are determined that should not happen, insisting that Lord McAlpine in particular holds the key to unlocking the identities of substantial donors.

He has already embarrassed the Government by effectively conceding the case, argued by Labour in its evidence to the committee, for donors of more than pounds 5,000 to be identified.

There was more embarrassment too with a charge, souring already sensitive relations, by prominent members of the Hong Kong business community that the Government had stood by and allowed them to be treated like criminals during the party funding furore.

David Tang, one of several donors, told BBC Radio's PM: 'I can almost categorically say that everybody I know of who has given money and supported the Conservative Party are proper businessmen. There is no reason why now . . . the party or the Government shouldn't come up and enunciate their support for these people who have been so supportive.'

But the criticism may serve only to confirm party determination to keep donations secret.