LEADING ARTICLE : A yellow card in the Commons

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The Independent Online
It was a game of two halves in the House of Commons yesterday. In the first, we had John Major and Tony Blair, hacking away at each other's ankles, each accusing the other of lying about taxes. This is the politics we have become used to from the two main parties: bad-mouthing, shirt-tugging and plenty of off-the-ball action. These are politicians who are not afraid of jumping to hasty conclusions and letting fly with false accusations. Even Mr Blair, who once promised a clean style of play, has plainly decided: no more Mr Nice Guy.

Against this background of malevolence and back-biting, contrast the second half of the proceedings, when two MPs were disciplined after accepting £1,000 for asking a parliamentary question. They had a bad day: no doubt the pair took the precaution of stuffing a few copies of Hansard down the backs of their trousers. But in the end they received less than the parliamentary horsewhipping they deserved for activities that will have convinced many people that the Commons is a club of slippery types prepared to use public office for private profit.

True, the two men, Graham Riddickand David Tredinnick, had to appear before the beak, in front of their massed colleagues, and apologise for taking the money. Then they retired from the House while fellow MPs went through the awkward task of debating the money-spinning wheeze. And finally came the punishment: suspension without pay for 10 and 20 days respectively.

But somehow you didn't feel that MPs had their hearts in it. They were not nearly as exercised about this issue as they were about maligning each other in the earlier exchanges. They certainly have not been in any hurry to tackle the cash-for-questions issue. A full nine months has now passed since the activities of the MPs were first revealed.

And although the two MPs were publicly embarrassed yesterday, they were not humiliated. The Commons could have exacted a tougher penalty. The MPs could have been suspended indefinitely, forcing them into by-elections in which voters could have had their rightful say about the matter. That would have meant certain defeat.

In short, yesterday's events, and the run-up to them, have done little to restore confidence in our parliamentary representatives, who have once again shown themselves reluctant to be tough on themselves. We can only hope that the Nolan committee on standards in public life will be more vigorous. After the cash-for-questions affair, Parliament should accept Nolan's expected recommendation that MPs be subject to an independent scrutineer. Politicians may be good at telling us how to behave, but they are not up to the job of refereeing themselves.