Wounds still fester on cash for questions

Hamilton affair: Labour confident that it is opening a can of worms
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Westminster Correspondent

If Conservatives arriving in Bournemouth are optimistic that the worst of the cash-for-questions affair is behind them, they may have to think again.

Labour is gearing up for a mighty onslaught when the Commons resumes business next Monday. What was in danger of becoming the preserve for the cognoscenti - a row between The Guardian and Mohamed al-Fayed on the one hand and Neil Hamilton and Ian Greer on the other over something that happened years ago - has been elevated with the disclosure of the memorandum from a government whip discussing how to block a parliamentary inquiry.

Labour is confident that this is something the public can understand, that provides tangible proof of big money talking, of the way in which the Establishment draws the wagons round itself when threatened. If the Government did this to one inquiry, asked a Labour MP yesterday, what else has it been doing, what other procedures have been rigged?

At Westminster, there was little surprise at the memorandum - the whips have long been suspected of manipulating select committees - it was the document's publication that caused genuine shock. For the first time, here was proof of a cynical disregard for democracy.

Similarly, how many other Hamiltons and Greers are there? Mr Hamilton was a gregarious, larger-than-life character, but are we to suppose he was the only one of his party accepting large sums of cash? The names of two other Tory MPs constantly crop up in this context. Another Hamilton would be a devastating blow.

Mr Fayed says he can name other Tory MPs, and one in particular is the focus of his dossier sent to Sir Gordon Downey, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. If taken to their natural conclusion, Mr Fayed's allegations are sensational - far worse than anything to date. Fortunately for the Tories, he does not have absolute proof, only plenty of circumstantial evidence. How is Sir Gordon going to treat his dossier?

While Mr Greer was at the top of the lobbyist tree, he was not the only member of his profession to enjoy close links with the Government. So far, almost all the revelations have emanated from one source: Mr Fayed. If someone else was to come forward, who also had cause to hire lobbyists and pay MPs, Parliament and the Tories would be on their knees.

The future for Mr Hamilton and Mr Greer looks bleak. Mr Hamilton says he can defend himself against the allegations and will do so before Sir Gordon Downey. Even if he does, however, his political ambitions are in ruins. He promised to defeat The Guardian and capitulated at the first hurdle. Worse, and more damaging within his own party, he apparently gave a less than frank answer when confronted by Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister. Such inconsistency is not forgotten, least of all by Mr Heseltine.

Mr Hamilton's local party may stand by him, but cracks are appearing. How much longer will they put up with his bluster?

One of the unanswered questions, how he came to purchase his house in Cheshire, will have set local tongues wagging.

Mr Greer's agency will do well to survive at all in the present climate.

With a Labour administration looming, it never was going to be easy for a firm which, despite some signings from the Opposition, was so closely associated with the Tories. Now, it looks impossible.

Having stood down as chairman, Mr Greer is showing all the signs of someone who wants to get it off his chest, to turn on the Tories. There is a purpose here: by widening his influence and connections beyond Mr Hamilton, he relegates the whole tawdry affair.

The effect could be shattering. Already, a man who jealously guarded his financial links with the party, has boasted of having provided pounds 750,000. When this newspaper contacted him last week with a list of MPs whose election campaigns he had assisted, he volunteered some more names.

Mr Greer may do "a Fayed" to the Tories. Having been ostracised, he may turn on the party with a vengeance.