Willetts could be forced to quit

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The Independent Online
The Treasury minister David Willetts is expected to be strongly censured today following a Commons inquiry into an alleged conspiracy to subvert an investigation into the Neil Hamilton cash for questions affair.

Depending on the strength of the reprimand by the newly created Standards and Privileges Committee, Mr Willetts could be forced to resign his Government post.

The all-party committee has been deadlocked for some weeks after nearly 20 hours of debate over the terms of its verdict on Mr Willetts, who, as a Government whip, is alleged to have attempted to block a Commons investigation into the cash for questions scandal.

It had been claimed that Mr Hamilton, the former Conservative minister, had accepted cash payments from Mohamed al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods.

While that claim was being examined by the now-defunct Committee of Members' Interests, Mr Willetts spoke with Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith, the Conservative chairman, and subsequently wrote a whips' office memo which suggested pressure was being exerted on the inquiry.

He said that Sir Geoffrey's committee should either argue that the matter was sub judice, and set it aside, or that it should be investigated speedily, "exploiting good Tory majority at present". Either course of action, as recommended by Mr Willetts would have been grossly improper as the investigation was a quasi-judicial process.

The investigation into Mr Willetts was the first test of the application of a stricter code of conduct demanded by Lord Nolan's Committee on Standards in Public Life.

Continued deadlock in the standards and privileges committee, with the ultimate publication of majority and minority reports, would have shown that the Commons was unable to police itself in such cases. That would have led to strong demands for external investigation into allegations of misconduct and Commons sleaze which MPs have resisted.

Today's report, said last night to be unanimous, will be presented to the Commons, and published, at 3.30pm today. It will then have to be considered by the whole House.

In the past, recommendations of disciplinary committees have not always been upheld by the whole House, but if Mr Willetts is reprimanded no further action will be required, and it is possible that while he might feel the need to resign, the issue can then be considered resolved.

However, the substantive outstanding issue, the fate of Mr Hamilton, remains. That is under investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Gordon Downey.