Tim Smith thrust back to obscurity

Christian Wolmar on the cash-for-questions MP's demise

Tim Smith, the former Northern Ireland minister, will now return to the obscurity from which only the cash-for-questions scandal removed him during his 17 years as an MP.

Mr Smith's years in Parliament have been undistinguished and uneventful. He first brief taste of the limelight came in 1977 when he won the by- election at Ashfield, a Labour stronghold which it lost because of the financial crises and mid-term blues of the Wilson-Callaghan 1974-79 government. He lost the seat at the 1979 election but returned to Parliament with a by-election victory in 1982 - beating off the challenge of one Tony Blair.

Mr Smith's reputation of anonymity once compelled the former Labour minister, Gerald Kaufman, to observe, when Mr Smith appeared at the Despatch Box as a Northern Ireland minister: "I knew the honourable gentleman had learnt to crawl, but I did not know that he had learnt to speak."

Educated at Harrow and Oxford, he spent his early years as a tax specialist. As a result he acquired a batch of consultancies in the financial sphere: the British Insurance and Investment Brokers' Association, the Commodity Traders Group, Lloyds Group Union and the British Venture Capital Association.

But it was his undeclared work in 1987 for Mohamed al-Fayed that was to be his undoing. Evidence leaked last week from Sir Gordon Downey's inquiry into cash-for-questions reveals that Mr Smith was given several bundles of pounds 50 notes by Mr Fayed and was unable to say exactly how much he received, though it was thought to be between pounds 18,000 and pounds 25,000.

The evidence made clear that Mr Smith had taken the money, had declared the money to the Inland Revenue only as part of partnership earnings with his wife, and failed to note his interest on the Members' Register.

Although Mr Smith says he told the Chief Whip, David Waddington, in 1989 about the payments, he still went on to become a junior Northern Ireland minister in 1994 as a result of the reshuffle caused by the resignation of Tim Yeo, who was involved in a sex scandal.

He resigned when allegations of the payments were made and investigated by Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, but a crucial delay of at least 10 days between Mr Smith telling Sir Robin and his eventual resignation has not been explained by the Government.

Mr Smith admitted to his constituency that he had taken the money and yet its officers stood by him. Moreover, John Major did not refer the case to the Members' Interest Committee, despite the clear breach of the rules, and so after his resignation Mr Smith returned to backbench obscurity - and, amazingly, a seat on the Public Accounts Committee, which monitors public expenditure.

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