Leading Article: A thin line Tories must not overstep

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The Independent Online
THE Prime Minister's attempt yesterday to defend his back to basics campaign amid further revelations of the moral fallibility of Tory MPs served only to emphasise his own weakness - and his government's shortsightedness in presenting itself as the promoter of core values.

John Major was speaking to Sir David Frost on breakfast TV even as viewers absorbed three fresh disclosures: that Tim Yeo, the former environment minister, had fathered a second child out of wedlock while at Cambridge; that a wealthy Tory MP, Alan Duncan, had bought a Westminster neighbour's ex-council house on the cheap; and, more farcically, that a Tory MP was being accused by his wife of having gone off with another man.

In his interview, the Prime Minister sought to draw a distinction between people who 'patently behave badly' and those who 'commit an indiscretion'. It was perfectly proper, he said, that the former should not remain in a public position; but for those who behaved foolishly, tolerance and understanding might be extended.

The idea that such a distinction can be drawn reeks of the hypocrisy that has marked this chapter in the Conservative Party's history. Tory MPs who in future take the risk of sleeping with someone who is not their spouse may wonder whether what they are doing amounts to patent bad behaviour or mere

indiscretion. The answer would doubtless hinge on the effectiveness of their contraceptive precautions: as Mr Yeo's experience showed, to father a baby in the course of an affair is to draw attention to infidelity.

Mr Major protests in vain that he is 'not in the business of a witch- hunt against people who behave in a foolish fashion'. The fact is that too many prominent Tories have been found recently to be behaving in ways sharply at odds with the high moralising tone adopted at last year's Blackpool conference. The Government as a whole thus stands accused of collective hypocrisy, of preaching one thing while its members do another.

The private lives of all Tory MPs and ministers, but especially of those adopting a high moral tone, have therefore become a legitimate target for press interest. The Sun has even installed a 'Humbug Hotline' ('Have you had a bellyful of hypocrites? Is your MP hiding something, saying one thing while doing another?'). The Tories' strategic error has been compounded by Mr Major's failure to decide for himself Mr Yeo's fate as a minister. In allowing constituency activists to take the decision, he effectively put his entire ministerial team at risk from moral zealots.