Leading Article: Abandoned by an embarrassed PM

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL MATES was not in himself important. Promoted late in his political career to a middle-ranking ministerial post, he was going nowhere. Few will miss his presence in office. Yet even the demise of such an insignificant figure has sent the Government once more into a spin, highlighting deep problems: its increasingly sleazy image, its weakness and the poor leadership offered by the Prime Minister.

It should not have been difficult for John Major to deal with the embarrassment of Mr Mates's relationship with Asil Nadir, a fugitive from justice. The impropriety of Mr Mates's conduct had been leaking out for nearly a month: first there was his present of a watch to Mr Nadir, then the disclosure that the minister borrowed a car from Mr Nadir's adviser, days after the disgraced businessman had jumped bail to Northern Cyprus. Combined with Mr Mates's persistent - and in itself blameless - advocacy in Mr Nadir's favour with the Attorney General, the file on the Northern Ireland minister's unsuitability for government was thick. His failure to disclose certain details even meant Mr Major inadvertedly misled the House of Commons when he denied that there had been financial involvement with Mr Nadir's advisers.

Yet Mr Mates was allowed to survive until the very last minute. Faced with the prospect of having to defend his minister in the Commons yesterday, Mr Major finally announced the resignation. Hours later, without such a decision, the Conservative Party's 1922 Committee might have demanded Mr Mates's head. Even in this tardy decision, Mr Major offered no leadership. He said that he had accepted the resignation solely on the grounds of 'embarrassment being caused to the Government'. There were no principles involved, nothing about poor behaviour by a minister who should have known better. Mr Major made clear that the determining factor was simply that the poor fellow could not survive politically.

Mr Mates had to go for the same reasons as David Mellor and Norman Lamont. These chaps were OK as far as the Prime Minister was concerned, but it had just become impossible for them to do their jobs. Yet, in each case, those ministers should have resigned long before: Mr Mellor when his free holidays in Spain were revealed and Norman Lamont when Britain was forced to leave the exchange rate mechanism.

Mr Major defended the indefensible for too long. In failing to wield the knife soon enough, he has let the media develop a role in harrying wounded ministers to death. Once it senses weakness and drift, the press is ruthless in its pursuit of individual politicians. On three occasions in the last year Mr Major has shown that eventually he will abandon his colleagues when the pressure becomes too great. If the wolves can pick them off one by one, what chance for Mr Major should there be a concerted challenge to his position as Prime Minister? Friends are worried that the taste for blood will be satisfied only by his own demise. In July, when MPs are crotchety and have spent too much time at Westminster, another whispering campaign about his failures could begin. Perhaps it already has.

There is another issue springing from the Mates affair. The Prime Minister's 'honest John' image is being tarnished by his failure to set high standards for government. How can he defend taking large sums of money from anonymous foreign donors? Ministers bumble their justifications, but they have left voters suspicious that pork-barrel politics has come to Britain.