Westminster Scandal: Major attacked over refusal to condemn the six

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The Independent Online
John Major and Tony Blair clashed angrily in the Commons over the Westminster report with both condemning the other's attitude to district auditor's findings as "contemptible".

The Prime Minister repeatedly refused to condemn Dame Shirley Porter and her five colleagues on the Tory council found guilty of a pounds 31.7m vote- rigging plot, insisting on the need to await the outcome of their appeal.

But the Labour leader said Mr Major's real problem was that Westminster was a flagship council acting with the approval of the Tory party.

"If the Prime Minister fails now to condemn what has been described as 'disgraceful and improper' conduct, won't it be crystal clear to the British people that there are no depths to which the Conservative Party will not stoop to gain re-election."

John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, clothed his reticence in such self-righteous terms that there were shouts of "canonise him" from the Labour benches.

"I have made it clear that I would condemn utterly any failure to meet the highest standards of propriety whenever it is found and whoever is found guilty . . . But neither the Government, nor this House nor I should prejudge the findings of the courts," Mr Gummer said.

However David Rendel, for the Liberal Democrats, pointed out that whatever the legal position in relation to the six surcharged, the findings in relation to Barry Legg, now Tory MP for Milton Keynes SW, were likely to stand.

Mr Legg, a former Westminster councillor, was not surcharged. But Mr Rendel said the auditor found that Mr Legg knew there was gerrymandering decided not to act.

"This in effect is condoning gerrymandering, and that brings into question his membership of this House," Mr Rendel said. "If Mr Legg does not resign, and the Prime Minister and Mr Gummer do not take any action in this matter, that in effect means Mr Gummer and the Prime Minister are condoning gerrymandering as well."

Frank Dobson, Labour's environment spokesman, said a Labour government would set up a public inquiry into the "Tory government's squalid relations with Tory Westminster". For 10 years the Government had "rigged" the system to help its friends in Westminster.

Mr Blair called on Mr Major to fulfil a promise made in January 1994 to condemn those involved "absolutely and unreservedly". But Mr Major said the people challenged had declared their innocence in very clear terms.

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