A clear response to the cash for questions MPs

The robustness of Downey is a big step forward for those confident that a reformed Commons can regulate itself
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The Independent Online
It was worth the long wait. Let us be kind and put down to shock the deafening silence which was Conservative Central Office's first reaction yesterday to Sir Gordon Downey's report. For it is a tribute to it that it retains the capacity to shock even after the millions of the words written and spoken about sleaze in the last parliament.

Neil Hamilton, still fatuously protesting his innocence of the "central charges" until the last (for those TV stations prepared to pay for interviewing him) is banged to rights. Sir Gordon, contrary to Hamilton's confident expectations, had no compunction about concluding that he did indeed take cash in brown envelopes from Mohamed Al Fayed for asking parliamentary questions.

At least two other MPs, beside the wretched Tim Smith, would almost certainly, we now know, have had to resign had a trick of Tory timing not prevented publication of the report before the election. How astoundingly lucky, therefore, for William Hague that, like Jonathan Aitken, neither Hamilton, Michael Grylls (who stood down) nor Sir Andrew Bowden nor, perhaps, Michael Brown survived the election.

The robustness of the Downey report - which wasn't universally expected - is a big step forward for those confident that a reformed Commons can regulate itself. It is hard to see how even a Standards and Privileges Committee as heavily dominated by the Tories as the present one is by Labour could have upheld appeals against verdicts as painstakingly supported by evidence as these. Sir Gordon's report is a cheering vindication of the faith put in the appointment of a parliamentary commissioner by Nolan. Optimists have been saying for some time that they belong to a culture which has already been transformed by Sir Gordon's appointment, and the tightening of the rules for commercial interests enacted in the last parliament. Any MP offered such an interest now knows that he acts at his own risk if he fails to pick up a telephone to check with Sir Gordon's office. Even the dry passim judgements of the report - "There is a general obligation on members to the effect, `If in doubt, register.' Mr Hamilton seems to have adopted the opposite principle and, if in doubt, gave himself the benefit of it" - are a reminder of the nemesis that can overtake MPs if they take the risk. Sir Gordon has done the business.

It may seem churlish, therefore, to say that the system still has some way to go before it can be said to be perfect. Not every case will necessarily be as clear-cut, not every MP on the take as breathtakingly arrogant or careless about covering his tracks as Hamilton or Smith. This means, first, that when Lord Nolan's committee comes to review the system, probably in the next parliament, it should consider further refinements to ensure that it is proof against the powers of manipulation by the governing party. Nolan himself recommended explicitly that the Parliamentary Commissioner should have the same powers to publish the report as the Auditor and Comptroller General - in other words that he was not bound by the wishes of the committee about when he chose to make his report public. This recommendation got lost in the inter-party negotiations on how to implement Nolan. And because it did it was impossible for Downey to publish before the election. Depriving the governing party of the power to influence timing would be a highly effective incentive for it to keep its own house in order.

Second, the Standards and Privileges Committee has the power to hear appeals against Sir Gordon's conclusions and to decide what sentence to recommend to the Commons. It is questionable whether it is right for such a quasi-judicial committee to have its members appointed by party whips, to reflect exactly the party composition of the Commons itself. As it happens, two Tory members of the Standards and Privileges Committee showed, albeit in the comparatively trivial case of David Willetts, their determination to make the system work with integrity and impartiality. They were Tony Newton, a man of great honour and with a capacity to resist political pressure from his own party, who chaired the committee, and Quentin Davies, a highly independent-minded spirit who gave Willetts such a hard time in cross-examination. But supposing they hadn't been around, or that the Tories had had a much bigger, and more easily manipulable majority - the conclusions might be very different. Labour MPs naturally throw up their hands in horror at the idea that a large majority on their side would ever yield to such political pressure. And tough, awkward MPs like Dale Campbell Savours and Alan Williams never would of course. But there is an important sense in which self-regulation won't be fully tested until a sitting Labour MP has had to be dealt with.

But that's for another day. Downey illuminates the closing rotten years in which Tory MPs were on the take and got away with it. John Major can't escape some of the blame for appointing as ministers MPs like Aitken and Hamilton whom Thatcher, with much better judgement, had overlooked. Royston Webb, Mohamed Al Fayed's ex-lawyer, testified to Downey that the lobbyist Ian Greer told him of being besieged after the 1983 election by Tory MPs seeking consultancies like "taxi drivers ... for hire". The Tories will say that Downey reflects an era which has ended. But if Hague really wants to draw a line under it, he needs to express his own horror and determination to prevent a repeat. He should start by expelling the miscreants from the Tory party.

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