Leading Article: Revelations that demand answers

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John Major showed poor judgement yesterday in speaking dismissively of 'tittle-tattle' when pressed about accusations of sleaze against his government. Earlier this week he seemed to appreciate that public confidence had been seriously shaken by revelations of improprieties. The latest instance concerns Angela Rumbold, a former minister and vice-chairman of the Conservative Party. She has resigned as a director of a political lobbying company retained by the Blue Circle cement company. Any role she played in the Government's unexpected choice of Ebbsfleet, where Blue Circle owns derelict land, as the site of a new Channel tunnel rail link station is a matter of legitimate public interest.

At the heart the week's dramas lies the case of Mohamed al-Fayed vs HM Government. Only nine days after it became public, two ministers have resigned, another remains embattled, and the Prime Minister has felt obliged to set up a standing commission on standards in public life, whose members were announced yesterday.

Mr Fayed is motivated by a burning resentment at the conclusion by the Department of Trade and Industry's inspectors in 1990: that he and his brothers had dishonestly misrepresented their origins, wealth and business interests in the battle with Lonrho for House of Fraser. Mr Fayed, who contributed pounds 250,000 to Tory party funds in 1987, is also bitter that his family's applications for citizenship have been dealt with by two ministers he regards as hostile: the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, one of whose cousins was chairman of a Lonrho subsidiary; and Charles Wardle, who had attacked Mr Fayed in the Commons during the takeover struggle.

That sense of betrayal lay behind the Egyptian financier's allegations of improper behaviour against four ministers. These were first made via an informant to the Prime Minister, who ordered an investigation by the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, and then to the Guardian. Two ministers, Tim Smith and Neil Hamilton, were alleged to have accepted payment for asking questions in the Commons on Mr Fayed's behalf. Mr Smith swiftly resigned. Mr Hamilton denied the charge and sued for libel, but admitted a week at the Ritz hotel in Paris at Mr Fayed's expense. Then he, too, resigned under belated pressure from Mr Major.

The third minister involved was Mr Howard. Allegations against him were investigated by Sir Robin, and he was cleared. But he subsequently explained how he had three times passed the Fayed citizenship application to junior ministers.

Finally, there is Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, accused of having had half his bill at the Paris Ritz paid by a Saudi business friend and of having misled Sir Robin about the transaction. First he implied that his wife paid the bill in full, in cash. Last night he changed his story and provided evidence to back it up. But it had taken extreme public pressure to drag it from him. Earlier the Prime Minister had said that the public must trust the judgement taken in private by the Cabinet Secretary. That was to misunderstand the gravity of the crisis.

Sir Robin Butler's unimpressive inquiry did not even take evidence from Mr Fayed, whose allegations will now be investigated by the Privileges Committee. Even if Labour drops its boycott, and proceedings take place mainly in public, a committee of MPs faces an uphill struggle to present itself as an effective watchdog of parliament. The standing commission under Judge Nolan is concerned not with investigation but future standards of conduct.

It is easy for Mr Fayed to suggest an inquiry under someone of the calibre of Lord Justice Scott. Yet the case for doing so grows stronger with each revelation. Before new rules are adopted, the public needs to know whether there are just a few rotten apples, or whether much of the political orchard is blighted.

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