Political Commentary: Botched butchery by Major, bungled question by Blair

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The Independent Online
IN THE last few weeks those of us who bother our heads with such matters have noticed two claims entered on behalf of the Prime Minister. One is that he has 'abandoned Thatcherism'. This is a claim which is made roughly once every six months with an equal lack of plausibility on each occasion. This time it was made immediately after his Bournemouth speech. It was based on a solitary mention of R A Butler - and on numerous cosy references in what might be termed Major's Warm Beer Mode. The unanimity of view about the supposed change in him testified to the assiduity of his youthful aides and to the horror of not being in step felt by the political editors of our great newspapers.

The other claim is that, in humour and self-confidence, Mr John Major is a changed man. This is said to be the result of his victory in Brussels over the European Presidency, his success in Northern Ireland and his trip to South Africa. Oddly enough, those noticing this transformation most clearly had just been granted interviews by him. Still, there was no doubt he had changed. Strolling around Bournemouth, he appeared jaunty, even a little arrogant. Doggedness had paid off] Honest John had shown them] That was the picture - was it not? - which was being displayed before our admiring eyes when the Commons returned last week. But by Thursday the old Mr Major was fully restored: weak, hesitant and incompetent.

It was difficult to follow the chronological course of events by watching Thursday evening's television or even by reading Friday's papers. Most people would have thought that Mr Major was responding to Mr Tony Blair's question. In fact he was answering a previous question from Mr Michael Clapham, the MP for Barnsley West and Penistone.

Earlier that day the Guardian had published a scoop by Mr David Hencke. Mr Tim Smith, a junior minister for Northern Ireland, and Mr Neil Hamilton, the Under- Secretary for Corporate Affairs (with special responsibility for ethics), had as backbenchers accepted money from Mr Mohamed Al Fayed to ask parliamentary questions on his behalf. The intermediary was Ian Greer Associates. Mr Greer once invited me to lunch with the directors of Fisons fertilisers. The occasion was not, as I remember, a great success. This should dispose of the notion that he is a wizard of PR. He and Mr Hamilton are suing the Guardian. Previously ministers have been discouraged from suing and made to resign if they wish to persist.

The paper is standing firm. It certainly appears to have evidence that Mr Hamilton accepted hospitality in Paris for himself and his wife from Mr Fayed. This he did not declare in the Register of Members' Interests. It may be that having, with Mr Gerald Howarth, forced the BBC to apologise and pay large damages in another case, Mr Hamilton fancies himself as the Mike Tyson of the Law Courts. Alas, I fear that he (an old pupil of my own school, incidentally) will turn out to be, following Mates, Mellor and Yeo, the latest victim of Mr Major's botched butchery.

Mr Smith resigned before midday. In his letter to Mr Major his admission of culpability was confined solely to his failure to declare necessary information in the Register. He did not suggest that it was wrong in itself to accept payment for asking questions. Nor, in his scarcely civil reply, did Mr Major.

Mr Clapham then asked his question shortly after 3.15. Mr Major said that the allegations had been brought to him 'privately some three weeks ago'. He had made it 'absolutely clear' that he was 'not prepared to come to any arrangement with Mr Al Fayed'. He had also made it 'perfectly clear' that 'these matters would be fully investigated'. He asked the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, 'to undertake an independent and full investigation'. What Mr Major did not make at all clear was what Mr Fayed's proposed arrangement was. Still less did he clarify whether Mr Smith was resigning because of Sir Robin's investigations or because of the Guardian's revelations.

The Government has been suggesting through its lackeys that Mr Smith was about to resign anyway. I do not believe this. I know of old these investigations by the Cabinet Secretary. They are designed to parcel up a potential scandal neatly and to place it in the left luggage office of Victoria Station, never to be reclaimed. In any event, an investigation of this kind need not take three weeks. It should be completed in days. Even so, Sir Robin has not yet consulted the Guardian, Mr Hencke or, as far as I know, Mr Fayed.

One might have thought that Mr Blair would have inquired about these matters. Not at all. Instead he stuck to his script, which had been written that morning. He asked Mr Major to ensure that no minister who had privatised a company should end up on the board. He requested him to publish the names and political affiliations of all quango members. He wanted him to broaden the present inquiry of the Committee of Privileges into the previous cash-for-questions bandits, Mr Graham Riddick and Mr David Tredinnick. He also wished the committee to sit in public.

There had been a row about sitting in public earlier in the week. The Labour members of the committee staged an angry walk-out because, by the casting vote of the Leader of the House, Mr Tony Newton, the committee had declined to hold its hearings in public. But this committee has rarely held public hearings. A full record of the questioning is always printed with the report. The committee can certainly agree to hold its hearings in public.

This, as Mr David Hunt correctly if repetitiously states, is a matter for the committee. On this occasion the Conservative majority decided not to do so. The Labour members are simply kicking over the table and running home crying to mother - which duly gets them on television, as was the intention all along.

Mr Blair suggested that the committee should be widened and deepened in unspecified ways. If he wanted it to wind up its current investigation and to be replaced by an independent public inquiry, he should have said so clearly. That is the trouble with these three-part questions. Certainly Mr Blair sounded statesmanlike. By using 'tainted' he ensured good coverage. He looked even better, wearing a nicer suit than John Smith or Neil Kinnock had ever sported. Mr Blair was undoubtedly impressive.

Perhaps, in the television age, this is all that counts. Impressions are what people go on when they vote. But, to me, Mr Blair put up a performance of staggering ineptitude. He could have tried to nail Mr Major on three matters: Mr Smith's resignation, the length and secrecy of Sir Robin's inquiry, and the nature of the arrangement which Mr Fayed had proposed.

Later it was being said that he wished to obtain British citizenship for his brother. Mr Major's press officers were claiming that their master had spoken inadvertently. This is about as believable as the story that Mr Smith was about to resign anyway. Still, by 1997 everyone will have forgotten, or so Mr Major clearly hopes.