Waldegrave defends the right to tell House lies: Minister's career in the balance as angry MPs demand he quits Cabinet

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WILLIAM WALDEGRAVE, the minister responsible for more open government, last night faced demands for his resignation from the Cabinet after telling a Commons select committee that it was acceptable for ministers in extreme circumstances to lie to Parliament.

MPs were infuriated by his remarks to the Treasury and Civil Service committee. Some Whitehall sources said his future hung in the balance for defending action which was in clear breach of the rules on ministerial conduct. 'It is a terrible blunder,' said one colleague.

Opposition MPs saw Mr Waldegrave's comment as a further blow to the Government's credibility and linked his defence of misleading Parliament to their campaign over allegations of 'sleaze' in the Tory party. 'His position is untenable,' said Michael Meacher, shadow Minister for the Civil Service. 'Mr Waldegrave now confirms what we have known all along: they lied to the electorate,' said Matthew Taylor, Liberal Democrat spokesman on the Citizen's Charter.

Mr Waldegrave told astonished MPs that ministers could find that 'in exceptional cases, it is necessary to say something that is untrue in the House of Commons . . . The House of Commons understand that and accepts that.'

Pressed for examples, he cited Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, who when he was a Labour Chancellor denied the pound would be devalued. 'Much of government activity is much more like playing poker than playing chess. You don't put all your cards up at one time,' he added.

Giles Radice, the Labour MP chairing the select committee meeting, said: 'I was amazed. I don't think it is right that ministers should deceive or mislead the House. The Questions of Procedure for ministers makes it absolutely clear ministers should not mislead the House whatever the circumstances and that if they do mislead the House they should resign.'

The guidelines for procedure by ministers - issued by the Cabinet Office under Mr Waldegrave as part of John Major's move towards more open Government - state it is the duty of ministers 'to give Parliament, including its select committees, and the public as full information as possible about the policies, decisions and actions of the Government and not to deceive or mislead Parliament and the public'.

Asked about whether he was justifying ministers who lie for their country, Mr Waldegrave said: 'That is the very exceptional case where in the House of Commons he actually says something which is untrue.

'There are plenty of cases over the years in both governments where the minister . . . will not mislead the House and will take care not to mislead the House but may not display everything he knows about that subject and will answer the question accurately.'

MPs are becoming increasingly concerned at ministers' readiness to be 'economical with the actualite', as Alan Clark, the former minister for defence, put it to the Scott inquiry. The Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, which is investigating the Malaysian aid-for-arms affair, is expected today to call Chris Patten, the Governor of Hong Kong, over allegations that he misled the committee.

Mr Waldegrave attempted to repair the damage to his career and extricate the Government from further harm in interviews last night. 'The rule is you never mislead Parliament. There is one exception that proves the rule - the Chancellor of the Exchequer defended the currency in what turned out to be a devaluation. That is the only example anyone has ever found,' he said on BBC television. He admitted to giving 'blocking' answers to MPs but denied ever misleading Parliament.

Mr Waldegrave's future has already been brought into question over his role in the arms-to-Iraq affair. He told BBC 2's Newsnight last night: 'I have made it clear, as have other ministers, if Sir Richard Scott says we behaved in a dishonourable way, one would have to consider one's position.'

Colleagues regard him as honest, if lacking in political guile. He said he was answering honestly a committee question.

Mr Waldegrave made his latest gaffe when defending Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, who told the Scott inquiry that ministers in exceptional circumstances may not tell the truth. Mr Waldegrave was questioned about a letter to the Daily Telegraph by Sir Robin. 'In the real world, it is frequently the case that one cannot say all one knows. In that situation, one should avoid misleading, if one possibly can,' Sir Robin wrote.

In a statement defending Mr Waldegrave, the Cabinet Office last night said that he 'repeated Sir Robin Butler's example of Lord Callaghan being required to mislead the House over an impending devaluation. No criticism attached to Lord Callaghan or Sir Stafford Cripps (another Labour Chancellor) who did the same thing, for that. These were the exceptional cases to which Sir Robin referred and which had always been accepted by Parliament.'

One of the most celebrated cases of a minister having to resign for misleading Parliament involved John Profumo, Secretary for War. He resigned after denying having had an affair with Christine Keeler.

John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, yesterday inadvertently added to the controversy by telling a student meeting that 'honesty and trustworthiness' were among the basic values. 'I reject the concept that ministers should hold aloof from promoting debate on the issues involved,' he said at King's College, London.