Murky waters at Westminster: A cynical electorate is unlikely to heed John Major's call for fairness in the cash-for-questions affair

Click to follow
IF JOHN MAJOR were a better politician and a nastier man, he would have hauled in both Tim Smith and Neil Hamilton yesterday morning, and fired them. There would have been none of the ritual nonsense about tendering resignations, polite exchanges of letters, and what have you. It would have been brutish and short - a public execution for the good of the state.

Mr Hamilton maintains that most of the charges against him are false, and is taking a Briton's traditional remedy. More of that anon. But he does not, according to his friends, deny the older part of the story, that he asked for, and got, a free stay at the Ritz Hotel in Paris at the expense of its owner, Mohamed al-Fayed, whose cause he championed in Parliament. He did not declare this in the Register of Members' Interests.

The rules about precisely what should and should not be so declared are complex. But the thing looks embarrassing, at the very least, for a man whose ministerial brief includes overseeing business probity on behalf of the taxpayer. On those grounds alone - political embarrassment - a shrewder, rougher prime minister would have had Mr Hamilton dangling from the Downing Street gates by his famous red braces.

He would have done so because the public belief that this Government is, to use Tony Blair's relatively moderate expression yesterday, 'tainted' has become so engrained as to be ineradicable. There is a fin de siecle air about, a sense of decay that feels almost surreal in its intensity. People really despise the political classes.

The change in mood can be gauged in a non-scientific way by comparing the tone of Anthony Sampson's original 1962 Anatomy of Britain, which caused a real stir at the time, and another publication of a similar title that has just hit the bookshelves. Sampson was coolly sceptical about the importance of parliamentarians to lobbyists - 'the biggest business interests do not bother much about MPs' - and focused on their obviously inadequate salaries.

Before the war, he stated, 'several Labour MPs actually fainted from undernourishment'.

Contrast the tone of a comic volume just published, Back to Basics: Arthur Daley's Anatomy of Britain. The estimable Mr Daley rants on about the behaviour of his local MP 'Mavis Dellor' and concludes: 'Nowadays nobody does the decent thing, however bang they're caught to rights. The only place you'll see the decanter of Scotch and the loaded revolver in the library drawer now is an episode of Miss Marple.'

He goes on to offer MPs directorships in return for 'a seat on a quango, right up there with the barbecue pot noodle as one of this century's diamond inventions'.

An absurd comparison? My point is that a country which, 32 years ago, during the tail-end of the last long period of Tory rule, found Sampson's careful analysis shocking, now sees its political leaders in a far cruder and more cynical light. The point about the Daley diatribe is that you can hear it any day of the week, anywhere in the country. It's how people talk.

It is hard to know just how seriously John Major takes the public mood. On Tuesday, he told the Commons that he would not accept corruption and believed 'wrongdoing will have to be rooted out wherever it is'. David Hunt is preparing new guidelines on quangos. There will be a public debate, eventually, on the cash-for- questions issue.

Yet one gets the impression that he is relying rather too heavily on his own reputation for probity. He had the opportunity for fast, brutal action to send a clear message to a cynical country. He refused to take it, on the grounds that to destroy Mr Hamilton's career and reputation in this way would be against natural justice. Instead, he seemed to imply that Fayed had tried to put the squeeze on him: 'I was not prepared to come any arrangement with Mr al-Fayed.'

This caused hilarity in the chamber, presumably because it conjured up the image of the Prime Minister being offered a weekend for two at the Ritz and a trolleyload of free groceries from Harrods.

But his implication was, of course, extremely serious. Number 10 refused to explain what the Prime Minister had been getting at, but lurid tales were quickly spreading round the Palace bars and tea-rooms. They led to a further legal miasma: would Fayed sue in turn, and would Major have to be called as a witness?

These are murky, stinking waters. Mr Hamilton, having had a truly terrible grilling from the Government whips, remains, as I write, in post. Many other MPs have been investigated and cleared by the Cabinet Secretary. Mr Major is determined to give no more ground and to appeal to the country to judge his wilder colleagues with scrupulous fairness. In human terms, it is impossible not to respect him for this. But is it, politically, quite wise?

These are strange times. I arrived at Westminster yesterday brooding on horrible Windsor stuff and wondering what the PM would do about this latest story. Passing through a lobby, I was taken on one side by an MP and told a story about an aged politician, rent-boys and heroin, the kind of thing one used to be genuinely shocked by. Yet nobody seemed much surprised. Outside the building, as I left for lunch, a man was driving an armoured car round Westminster Square with a giant latex hand flashing a V-sign at Parliament, engaged in some personal protest.

As I say, surreal. It's the kind of thing you wouldn't swallow in the pages of a novel by Michael Dobbs - who is now in Conservative Central Office, trying to get the Government re-elected. Fiction and truth really do seem to be queasily blurring.

It is, of course, important not to forget that none of the scandals has been truly grave, not by historic or continental standards. This country has a relatively uncorrupt group of ministers and senior officials. We are still better off than, say, France.

But a backwash of greed, media prurience and broken rules from the Eighties is big enough now to swamp this Government and send it down, even if the economy is growing fast. It is unclear that anyone near the top really understands how they are seen from outside. Mr Major defends Mr Hamilton on the grounds that justice must be blind to such wider considerations. The trouble is, the rest of the country isn't.

(Photographs omitted)