Now it's the voter's turn to judge them

At the worst possible moment sleaze re-entered the political arena. Paul Routledge on a shattering climax to John Major's horrible week
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Indy Politics
It was, by common consent, a thrilling exchange, one of the few moments of parliamentary history when the term "electric" was not hyperbole. John Major fought like a cornered animal in what looks like his last appearance at the Despatch Box as Prime Minister. Enraged by Labour taunts of "Sleaze! Sleaze!" he tore into Tony Blair, dredging up every real or imagined taint of double-standards, shouting his accusations above the din of his own backbenchers. The Opposition leader looked visibly shaken. The egregious David Shaw, Tory MP for Dover, yelled: "Game, set and match!"

But it wasn't. The Government's subterfuge of proroguing Parliament five weeks before polling day, thereby preventing MPs from considering the completed report on "cash for questions" by Sir Gordon Downey, the Parliamentary Commissioner, backfired. Within hours of the Prime Minister slamming the lid on Thursday afternoon, the Guardian opened a new Pandora's Box of sleaze evidence given in confidence to Sir Gordon during his investigation. The story had been pulled together two days previously by the paper's editor, Alan Rusbridger, and another executive, after the Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes raised the matter during Prime Minister's Questions on Tuesday. But it was put on hold to see if Major relented. When one of the "Tory Ten" under investigation, Neil Hamilton, Tory MP for Tatton and a former Trade minister, said he would release the transcripts himself, and the Prime Minister tried to brazen his way out of the mire, they decided to go public. Staff writers were told to say nothing about the impending bombshell until midnight that night, for fear of provoking the Government into seeking a High Court injunction banning publication.

The news brought a shattering climax to John Major's horrible week, which started with the political defection of the Sun and ended with the resurrection of a lethal issue that the Government thought had gone away. Worse, it has the potential to run and run. "We will be constantly returning to this theme," promises David Hill, Labour's chief spokesman. "We will point out that every day is a day that the Committee on Standards and Privileges could have sat from early in the morning to late at night to clear up this scandal." The party's hit men have identified the constituencies of the MPs under a cloud of suspicion on cash for questions - and neighbouring seats, for good measure.

"It could not have been a worse end to the Parliament," argues Hill. "Sleaze has been the dominant factor throughout, and sleaze has been the end issue. Nothing better encapsulates what people think of this government, that Mr Tim Smith (the disgraced ex-minister) didn't receive his payments via cheques or direct access to his bank but in envelopes with notes. Sleaze will be seen as one of the things that brings this government down."

From the Government's point of view, the infuriating dimension to all this mayhem is that the scandal should have been put to bed long ago, and the voters might have forgotten about it. John Major asked Sir Gordon Downey to conduct his investigation last October. Labour said the Commissioner hadn't enough resources to do the job properly. The Government gave him more staff. The report should have been ready by Christmas. The Standards Committee would then have considered it, and made recommendations to the House. But the evidence mounted up, the hearings dragged on. The investigation involved 25 MPs, more than 60 witnesses, 13 oral hearings and 14,000 pages of evidence. Finally, it simply ran out of parliamentary time to complete its mission. MPs were sent home for the last time in this parliament on Friday, even though the Commons will not be dissolved for three weeks, technically permitting a recall that the Government does not want. It looked like a seamless scam.

But into this vacuum stepped the Guardian, arguing that the whole basis of the British electoral system could not work if voters were denied essential information about those who aspire to represent them. Failure to arrange publication denied this "essential safeguard" to voters in 10 constituencies. "The electoral process is thereby frustrated, and needlessly frustrated, since but for John Major's obduracy, none of this need have occurred," the paper said. It went on to risk the wrath of Parliament by publishing evidence it had been given in confidence. The charge sheet is formidable - though it should be remembered that many of the allegations have been denied. As it stands, transcripts of evidence given in confidence to Sir Gordon - and passed on by his office to the Guardian as part of the investigatory process - suggest that former ministers and Tory MPs accepted money for political favours and lied to their colleagues and political masters.

John Major described the Guardian story as "total and complete junk". This is difficult to accept, since most of it was based on the evidence of the Tory Ten themselves. Tim Smith, MP for Beaconsfield and ex-Northern Ireland minister, was quoted as confessing to the Downey inquiry that he had taken pounds 25,000 in cash while asking questions in Parliament on behalf of the Harrods' boss Mohamed al-Fayed. The confidential evidence states that he was given the money in pounds 50 notes. Mr Smith's somewhat lame defence is that Mr Fayed is "an unusual man who does business in an unusual way". Mr Hamilton, a tax barrister, is said to have admitted taking pounds 10,000 in "commissions" which he did not declare to the Inland Revenue for nine years, and taking a second free holiday at Mr Fayed's Ritz Hotel in Paris, and lying to the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine. Mr Hamilton, who withdrew from a libel case against the Guardian last autumn, described the disclosures as "a pack of lies". Michael Brown, MP for Cleethorpes, is said to have failed to declare pounds 6,000 in commissions from Ian Greer Associates for working on behalf of a US maker of oral tobacco. Sir Andrew Bowden, Tory MP for Brighton Kemptown since 1970, is said to have admitted taking pounds 5,000 in cash from Mr Fayed in return for disclosing information about Lonrho, the Tiny Rowland conglomerate with whom the Harrods' boss was engaged in a bitter business struggle. Sir Michael Grylls, retiring member for Surrey North West, is said to have admitted lying to MPs about his lobbying activities, and was secretly paid commissions by Ian Greer.

Sir Gordon Downey deplored the Guardian's actions, saying they were "a gross breach of trust". Selective leaking of evidence was "against the interests of natural justice". And the story is necessarily incomplete because his report is not due to be completed until this week. What more, it might be asked, could there be? Mr Rusbridger says the paper has more dirt, but does not plan to publish it. "We have made our point," he insists. The Conservatives accuse him of working in tandem with Tony Blair, but the Labour leader's office and the Guardian editor are not considered close, despite the paper's sympathy for the aims of New Labour.

NEW Labour is promising a new start if (an increasingly inappropriate preposition) it wins the election. Tony Blair has promised that the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life, originally set up for a three-year term that expires this autumn, will be asked to carry on. Its remit will also be extended. Labour will invite Lord Nolan to look again at the issue of MPs' behaviour and review the working of the Code of Conduct introduced in the wake of the cash-for-questions allegations.

Furthermore, the Labour front bench would withdraw to arm's length from the Standards and Privileges Committee. Tony Newton, Conservative Leader of the House, presently chairs this body. Under Blair, the Leader of the Commons would not serve on the committee, much less direct its fortunes, "so as to remove all doubt of any governmental interference". Labour sources hint that a "Dale Campbell-Savours-type figure" will take the chair. Mr Campbell-Savours, MP for Workington and a member of the committee, has been the Government's most dogged tormentor on sleaze. Giving him - or anybody like him - the job would signal to the Conservatives that losing office will not secure them immunity from prosecution.

A Blair administration will also tighten up the rules on ministers' financial interests. Look out, too, for a toughening-up of the Members Register of Interests, so that MPs could not sprinkle themselves around the boardrooms of British companies as they do at present. Under new arrangements being examined by Labour, MPs would have to prove that they have relevant knowledge or qualifications in the industrial sector involved before they could legitimately join a company board. This new rule would stop Tory back- benchers and ex-ministers becoming directors simply to add the second- hand lustre of "MP" to the company's notepaper. And provide a lobbying route to government.

A Labour administration may find little opposition to such a programme. Though constituency associations have been tolerant of their wayward MPs (Mr Hamilton and Mr Smith have been dealt with in kindly fashion so far), the electorate may be less generous.

TIMETABLE OF DENIAL

1987-89

Tim Smith admitted to Sir Gordon Downey that during this period he received cash payments of pounds 18-25,000 from Mohamed al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods.

1989

Feb: Mr Smith says he informed his constituency chairman that he had accepted money from Mr Fayed. Evidence to Sir Gordon Downey indicates he also told Chief Whip David Waddington.

1994

Jan: Tim Smith appointed Northern Ireland minister.

July: Sunday Times claims Tory MPs Graham Riddick and David Tredinnick took pounds 1,000 for asking questions in Commons.

Sept: John Major asks Cabinet Secretary Sir Robin Butler to instigate inquiry into allegations of ministerial impropriety.

Oct: Mr Smith admits to Sir Robin accepting undeclared cash from Mr Fayed. Guardian claims he and Neil Hamilton accepted cash from Mr Fayed through Ian Greer Associates to ask questions during Lonrho battle. Also alleges Hamilton did not declare 1987 holiday at Paris Ritz for six years. Hamilton denies allegations. Smith resigns as Northern Ireland minister. Hamilton resigns, denying wrong-doing. Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life set up.

1995

May: Nolan Report published: Major accepts its "broad thrust".

Nov: Sir Gordon Downey takes up appointment as Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

1996

Sep: Mr Hamilton and Ian Greer drop libel action against Guardian.

Dec: Paymaster General David Willetts resigns after Privileges Committee report accuses him of "dissembling". He had earlier been accused of "deceiving" MPs by denying he tried to tamper with inquiries into Mr Hamilton's stay at the Ritz.

1997

Mar: Major denies suggestion he called election early to avoid Privileges Committee considering Sir Gordon's final report. Former Chief Whip David Waddington says he has no recollection of meeting with Tim Smith in 1989.

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