Outvoted Labour MPs emerged unhappy and disappointed from a prolonged discussion at the first meeting of the influential Committee of Privileges, which is inquiring into allegations that Conservative backbenchers Graham Riddick and David Tredinnick were each prepared to accept pounds 1,000 for tabling parliamentary questions. There were rumours of threatened resignations last night and Labour feelings were clearly running high.
While Labour members are in the difficult position of not wanting to delay the inquiry, one said he would find it difficult to sit on the 17-strong committee unless the decision was reconsidered. The acrimony came hours after John Major pledged to rise above the 'sleaze' and root out wrongdoing in public life.
Tony Newton, Leader of the House and the chairman of the committee, said afterwards that the committee would be sticking to precedent and taking evidence relating to the conduct of the two MPs and of the Sunday Times, which disclosed it, in private.
It would then look again at the question of whether wider issues in the second part of the inquiry - such as whether rules on pecuniary interests should be tightened - could be taken in public.
Both MPs insist they are innocent of any wrongdoing. The evidence would be published in full and the committee's report debated in the Commons, Mr Newton said.
Dale Campbell-Savours, the Labour MP for Workington who led calls for a full investigation, said afterwards: 'It's an outrage. The Select Committee on Members' Interests took a decision in 1987 to take evidence in public when necessary. We changed the rules. There is no reason at all why this committee cannot sit in public and in private, depending on the request of the witness. The public want to see an inquiry going on. You can't just put a lid on the whole issue.'
David Winnick, Labour MP for Walsall North, said: 'I think it is most unfortunate. Evidence should be given by the Sunday Times and members of the House who wish to do so in public. I think it would enhance the standing of Parliament.
'There is a good deal of evidence that can be taken in public. There will be a tremendous amount of disappointment.'
The nine Tory members, who have between them nine consultancies and 20 paid directorships, wanted to close off opportunities for a running commentary in the press.
They are confident that Labour MPs will not want undermine the inquiry with resignations, thereby placing question marks over its authority and eventual findings.