For sale; apply Westminster

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WELL, buying parliamentary questions - why not? If companies can buy interviews with ministers, buy invitations to Downing Street, buy the political services of MPs and buy their chiefs into public policy-making, what are a few measly hours of a junior civil servant's time between friends? It would be a welcome innovation, however, for individual Members to advertise their tariffs in the the House Magazine.

'Impecunious backbencher, Lloyd's losses, written questions and adjournment debates a speciality, competitive rates, Commons researcher's pass also available. Phone Henry Gubbins . . .' Or, 'Would your company letterhead be improved by the addition of a Tory knight, former minister as non-exec director? GAIN credibility, GAIN sales] From as little as pounds 2,000 pa. Low-cost package available July only] Telephone Sir Toby Belch . . .'

Yes, it was both daft and a little sad to see David Tredinnick and Graham Riddick nicked, though pleasing to see how many other MPs of both parties said no to the proposition. Those two stand condemned of being greedy and lacking suspicion or guile. None of which constitutes an offence either in the Commons rulebook or in the criminal code, though it may earn them a career-killing squiggle in the well-thumbed little book kept by the whips.

No, the real issue emerges if we ask which other politicians can stand in judgement over them. And it concerns not so much the legislature, whose power has decayed so drastically, but the executive. Who, in real power, has the right to shake a finger?

Is it to be the Prime Minister, who has hosted, albeit reluctantly and for the sake of his party, gatherings of businessmen at No 10 who are to be touched for their shareholders' cash at a later date? His longstanding friendship with the lobbyist Ian Greer is used by that affable and hardworking gentleman to turn many an honest penny. He won his 1992 election victory with the help of money from hidden and suspected sources. John Major is not only a public servant but a party leader too, and he has crestfallen Tory treasurers to contend with if he gets on his high horse.

Or is to be one of his ministers? Rather many of them, as MPs, worked for pharmaceutical companies, life companies or whoever before they reached government office; and many will take directorships not unconnected with their old jobs when they leave office. And some, while in office, have appointed Tory businessfolk to boards, in charge of railways and aviation and hospitals and used taxpayers' money to boost overseas trade and water and gas and . . .

Perhaps it should be the Conservative Party itself that stands in judgement? But the Conservative Party has taken money from Octav Botnar, fugitive Nissan chief, from Mohammed Hashemi, Iranian arms salesmen, from Asil Nadir and from Kamlesh Pattni, not a close friend of the Kenyan police. The Tory party, mired in debt, guards the secrets of its other benefactors too ferociously to be trusted. It could teach Messrs Riddick and Tredinnick, stuck on the back benches, a thing or two about money and influence.

The arbiter must, then, be the House of Commons collectively. Eh? The Commons, which comprises so many people taking money from so many companies because of their position as elected representatives? The Commons, which has talked for so long about putting the lobbyists on a formal footing, yet has done nothing about it? Labour MPs pose as spotless. At the moment, it's easy for them: out of power, they don't count for much. But plenty of companies and influence-peddlers have Labour MPs on their lists and will call in favours when the time comes. Then we'll see.

By now the reader will (I trust) be bursting with one overriding objection. Yes, commerce and politics are intertwined. But in most cases it has nothing to do with personal gain. In the real world, where Britain is fighting vicious competition, it is in the interests of everyone that the ruling party is influenced by Glaxo, Balfour Beatty and United Jam-Tarts.

To which reasonable objection, there are counter-objections. First, this question of gain. What is personal gain? Why should we lynch a lone MP who is tempted to take hundreds, while winking at a powerful minister who begs tens of thousands which are intended to add to his refulgence by getting him re-elected? Is not the latter case about 'personal gain' quite as much as the former? Some go for money, others for glory. The lone MP would give his eye-teeth to be unable to take that cheque because of his office.

But then we come to the heart of the affair. In the 'real world' the interests of companies and of individuals also clash. Politics is there to help to resolve those interests, which means that individual connections or obligations are not the same thing as the public good. What was in the interests of the brewers after the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report of 1989 wasn't necessarily in the interests of publicans or beer-drinkers. What is in the interests of a company wanting to sell a dam isn't necessarily in the overall interests of British taxpayers. The interpenetration of business and politics requires suspicious minds, not complacent ones.

Nor are there administrative systems which can ensure that individuals are scrupulous about keeping the parts of their brain that deal with public policy separate from the bits that deal with their own financial or career interests. In Britain, a small place, where top industrialists and ministers are brought repeatedly into social contact, it is, no doubt, as hard as anywhere. We are all aware that the situation is worse in Paris, with its tight-knit ruling elites - or in Italy, with its imprisoned elites. I know lots of ministers. I don't think any of them are corrupt.

But the culture is becoming tainted. It is easy to slither into hyperbole on this subject. Yet, after 15 years of single-party government, the Tories are effectively part of the constitution, and a certain laziness about what is fit and what is not seems to be creeping in. And this is important. For although systems cannot keep public life clean, culture can. A pernickety attitude to public service has survived in this country for a long time. There is a native puritanism about the place, which we lose at our peril. The good news is that it still exists - which is why most of us can still answer instinctively the question with which this column began.

(Photograph omitted)