Leading Article: A moral lapse that matters

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The Independent Online
BY COMMON consent, it could scarcely have happened at a worse time. After a week of revelations about the private lives of Tory MPs, the District Auditor's damning report on gerrymandering in Westminster council, a Conservative flagship, is doubly damaging. If its provisional findings are sustained - and they are being strongly contested by those involved - it will prove the sort of long-term embarrassment to the Tory party that mismanagement in 'loony' Labour councils was for Labour in the Eighties.

In the short term, as an example of Conservatives seeming to stray from those much-vaunted basic values, it far eclipses the sexual peccadilloes of Tory MPs. The involvement of a sitting Conservative MP, Barry Legg, adds to the unease: with Dame Shirley Porter and four others, the MP for Milton Keynes is listed as unfit to be a member of a local authority, and as due to repay any expenditure declared unlawful by the High Court.

Viewed charitably, the timing of the report is bad luck for the Prime Minister. Westminster council under Dame Shirley was after all a much prized and much praised symbol of late-Thatcherite government in its local, microcosmic form. Dame Shirley's autocratic style reflected the hubris that prevailed in the late Eighties at 10 Downing Street. It was an era in which those in power reckoned that what was good for them was good for the country/borough.

That there was something rotten at Westminster council was well known at least five years ago, but nothing was done. In 1988 both the District Auditor and the local ombudsman produced damning reports into the council's sale for a token 15p of three cemeteries and valuable adjacent land - all to save annual costs of pounds 406,000.

Dame Shirley, we commented in December 1988, 'has become an embarrassment to Westminster, to London and to the Conservative Party, and she should go'. Sadly for all three, she did not accept the advice until last year. Bent on clinging to power, she and her party devised - if yesterday's findings are confirmed - a cynical, callous and illegal policy of denying vacant council housing to the homeless in certain marginal wards, sealing it up and then selling it at favourable prices to those more likely to vote Conservative.

The District Auditor concluded that 'the electoral advantage of the majority party was the driving force behind the policy of increased designated sales'. That amounted to gerrymandering, which he described as 'a disgraceful and improper purpose' - and unlawful.

The verdict could scarcely be more crushing. Even if it is not

sustained, Westminster council's reputation will take a long time to recover, and the history of local government in Margaret Thatcher's Britain will have to be rewritten. John Major's tactic yesterday seemed to be play for time and stress the provisional nature of the findings. That could prove dangerous. If he and his party are seen to be minimising the gravity of it all, the Conservatives will seem deficient in the sphere of public morality as well as in the more trivial field of private mores.