Whips conspired to get Hamilton off the hook

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The Independent Online
Government whips were last night accused of conspiring to subvert the Commons inquiry into the Neil Hamilton affair.

Dale Campbell-Savours, a Labour member of the committee hearing evidence from the Paymaster General, David Willetts, suggested that Mr Willetts' actions were part of a wider attempt by the whips to protect Mr Hamilton.

The Standards and Privileges Committee is investigating claims that Mr Willetts tried to block a Commons investigation into the cash-for-questions scandal. Mr Campbell-Savours produced a memorandum he claimed was written by Andrew Mitchell - then also a government whip - who sat on the committee looking into the scandal, to the then chief whip, Richard Ryder.

Mr Campbell-Savours said the memorandum was written following the publication of an article in The Independent on 24 October 1994 headed "Hamilton failed to declare payments".

Mr Willetts said that he would not speculate on the note Mr Campbell- Savours produced. "I do not know its provenance," he said. The chairman of the Privileges Committee, Tony Newton, stopped further discussion of the new evidence.

Mr Willetts went on to claim that he had written the crucial note he is being questioned about to boost his chances of promotion. In his note of a conversation with the Tory MP Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith, the chairman of the now-defunct Members' Interests Committee, Mr Willetts suggested that they could exploit the committee's "good Tory majority" to rush through an inquiry into Mr Hamilton.

Mr Willetts said he may simply have been trying to impress his superiors when he wrote it, rather than trying to influence the committee, as Opposition MPs have claimed. "I am sure that in my first week as a whip I was trying to show `I am writing all these notes that will really help you, chief'. Yes I am sure that was in my mind," he said.

He was asked by the Tory MP Iain Duncan-Smith if he had been tempted to "embellish" his account of his conversation with Sir Geoffrey in order to show what an "incredibly successful" whip he was.

Mr Willetts replied: "I think you may have a point there. I think certain parts of the notes were over-dramatic." He said the note should have been better written and that experience in the whips office taught him the best accounts were "salty little notes" that reflected closely what a MP had said.

However, the Tory MP Quentin Davies - who last Monday subjected him to a severe grilling - returned to the attack accusing him of using "weasel words" and of being unable to give yes or no answers to questions. He challenged him to say whether his note had in fact been an accurate account of his conversation with Sir Geoffrey and suggested he had lied to the committee in order to protect his colleague. Mr Willetts strongly denied the charge.

Davies profile, page 4

Andrew Marr, page 15