Leading Article: The stench of corruption

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a very bad day for parliament, for the Government, and especially for the Prime Minister. Two ministers faced allegations of accepting payment for asking questions while backbenchers in the Commons. One, Tim Smith, resigned yesterday. The other, Neil Hamilton, is staying at his post and taking legal action. The accusations came a day after Labour members of the Committee of Privileges had walked out of an inquiry into similar recent allegations against two Tory backbenchers, which Labour wanted to be public.

At Question Time, John Major confirmed that he had been told of the latest allegations some three weeks ago. Yet all he did was to ask the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, to inquire into them. That inquiry has, astonishingly, not yet been completed.

This is, as Tony Blair memorably put it yesterday, a far from isolated incident: merely the latest evidence of a drop in standards in public life that is eroding the Government's credibility and destroying confidence.

Symptoms of sleaze have included the appointment of former Cabinet ministers to the boards of utilities that they themselves privatised; evidence - even now the subject of an inquiry - of gerrymandering by Westminster's Conservative council; and reports that Mark Thatcher was paid pounds 12m for his part in the 'arms deal of the century' with the Saudis, which his mother negotiated.

Mr Blair fairly accused the Government yesterday of having become tainted.

The constant refrain from Mr Major and his sleaze- buster, David Hunt, that standards of public life in this country are as high as anywhere in the world and that wrongdoing will be rooted out, is wholly inadequate. The former is an arrogant assumption, and there is little sign of the latter.

Over the past few months, the Prime Minister has managed to restore a measure of confidence in his leadership. His handling of this episode will shake that confidence. Why, when he heard of the allegations three weeks ago, did he not call the two men in, demand to know whether there was any truth in what was being alleged against them, and sack one or both of them if not satisfied with their answers? Why has the inquiry taken so long?

Because he is widely thought to be weak and anxious to be liked, Mr Major needs to be especially brutal in fulfilling his stated aim of rooting out wrongdoing.

Each revelation raises questions about the full extent of the problem.

Mohamed al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods on whose behalf numerous questions were asked, has said he was seeking to counter criticism of his takeover of the House of Fraser from MPs 'run' by his arch-adversary, Tiny Rowland. Who were they? Which other MPs were involved in other takeover battles?

This second round of allegations focused on 'cash for questions' raises afresh the looming issue of MPs' outside interests. The first round of allegations is being investigated by the Commons Privileges committee. Mr Blair suggested that the inquiry should be broadened and made public.

Whether MPs can be objective judges on issues concerning their own earning capacity will be doubted by many outside Westminster. But the Commons as a whole can be in no doubt that its own reputation, as well as the Government's, is at stake.