Leading Article: Stewed in corruption

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By the standards of thepresent government, it was an unspectacular weekend on the ethical front.

Richard Spring, a junior minister with no public reputation anyone could recall, resigned when a Sunday tabloid claimed that he had shared a bed with a businessman and a young woman. This brings to 15 or 17, depending upon how you keep the score, the number of ministers who have made their excuses and leftJohn Major's government since the general election three years ago.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Aitken, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, spent the weekend blustering about a World in Action documentary, due to be shown tonight, concerning his links with Saudi Arabia. It took Margaret Thatcher to remind us how a rather grander Tory figure deals with inconvenient reports in the media; she simply avoided commentabout the revelations in the first instalment of a book about the enrichment of her son, Mark.

Politicians, however, would be wrong to think that the public's response to these events is one of either casual prurience - in the case of Mr Spring - or paralysis in the face of painfully extracted detail about distant events, as in the case of Mr Aitken or Baroness Thatcher.

The problem for the likes of Messrs Spring, Mellor and Yeo is that they represent a party which makes a direct connection between personal morality and the individual's relationship with the state; "normal" family life is to be encouraged; deviancies such as single parenting are to be made even more socially and economically difficult than circumstances would otherwise dictate. It is deeply regrettable that Britain cannot manage a more grown-up attitude about sex, but Conservative MPs can feel no surprise when their adventures are used to shame them out of office.

The stories concerning Mr Aitken and the Thatcher family, however, are important in a wholly different way. It has already been established by this newspaper that Mr Aitken was a director of an arms company which sold weapons to Iran in contravention of British government policy. He should no longer be in office to be challenged by whatever the nexttelevision revelation is to be.

Lady Thatcher, it has been plain for a long time, also failed to recognise crucial distinctions between her rights and responsibilities in public office and her maternal desire to see her son do well. She should never have doubted that to allow Mark Thatcher to use her name, her influence (and her signed photograph) to peddle his business was to confuse "batting for Britain", as her press spokesman Bernard Ingham used to put it, with looking after her family's private interests. The Pergau dam affair revealed another kind of blind spot.

The only thing that can be said in the Government's favour is that it has set up two important committees, under Lord Nolan and Lord Justice Scott, to investigate some of the more egregious failures of our political representatives. The creation of the Nolan committee, especially, required a certain artless courage on the part ofMr Major. Increasingly, however, the Prime Minister looks like a grey crust on a bubbling stew of blurred principle and downright wrongdoing.

A partythat spends half its waking hours wondering how to get rid of him might just want to reflect upon that.

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