Willetts regrets misleading memo

Cash for questions: Inquiry could bring calls for suspension of high-flying Tory minister
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The Independent Online
David Willetts, the Paymaster General, who is accused of trying to subvert a Commons investigation into the conduct of his fellow Tory MP Neil Hamilton when he was a whip, yesterday admitted that his recollection of a key meeting was misleading and mistaken.

Appearing before the Commons cross-party Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, he faced a grilling by MPs, with the most exacting questioning coming from Quentin Davies, a Conservative backbencher who represents the Tory majority on the committee. If he decided to back any Labour demand for severe disciplinary action, Mr Willetts could be in deep trouble. While many MPs expect Mr Willetts to be reprimanded, he could survive that blight on his career. However, the ferocity of the questioning could mean a recommendation from the committee for more severe punishment, including the possibility of a suspension from the House. That would not only finish the high-flying career of Mr Willetts, it could also threaten the Government majority, which is why it still remains unlikely. Last night the committee adjourned after four hours of questioning, to take a second bite at Mr Willetts on Monday.

Mr Willetts told the committee he could not recollect the precise circumstances of a meeting with Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith, then chairman of the now- defunct Members Interests Committee, on 20 October 1994, the day that allegations about Mr Hamilton, then a minister, and undeclared cash payments were first published.

The "brief" meeting somewhere in the bowels of the Commons between the newly appointed whip, Mr Willetts, and the experienced Tory backbencher, Sir Geoffrey, who was then chairman of the Committee on Members' Interests, has only become significant because a memo outlining what occurred surfaced as a result of the Hamilton libel case, which collapsed. The memo, written by Mr Willetts to show his fellow whips, suggests that the two MPs discussed two options to deal with the potentially embarrassing investigation by Sir Geoffrey's committee: "(i) argue now sub judice and get committee to set it aside or (ii) investigate it as quickly as possible, exploiting good Tory majority at present." The memo then suggested that Sir Geoffrey wanted advice from the whips.

In a submission to yesterday's committee hearings, Mr Willetts said that much of the contents of the memo were, in effect, wrong. He said that Sir Geoffrey did not use the words "a good Tory majority". Moreover, he did not seek advice from the whips: "I wrongly thought that the whips' office could offer advice on it." He said he was disabused of this at the regular whips' meeting the following week and no further action was taken on his memo.

Mr Willetts said he regretted if his memo "should have inadvertently led to any confusion or misconception as to what actually occurred" but he said he did not do anything improper and denied vehemently a suggestion by a Labour member that he had tried to pressure the committee into dropping the Hamilton inquiry.

Mr Davies said that while the original memo was clear, the second, the submission to the committee, "did not have the same clarity" and was confusing. Earlier Sir Geoffrey had told the committee that he was unsure that Mr Willetts was talking to him as a whip. He said he did not know that Mr Willetts, whom he knew by reputation as having a particularly "inquiring mind", was talking to him as a whip. He told the committee: "I had no impression from him that he was talking to me as a whip." Sir Geoffrey's committee decided to take no action against Mr Hamilton.