Political Commentary: It's not Sir Robin's job to protect the Government

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IN MY declining years I propose to write a short guide provisionally entitled Moral Maxims for Modern Journalists. Among numerous precepts of a homely, Samuel Smiles variety, such as that 'Articles never started are never finished', I propose to include: 'The only way to make money out of expenses is to be scrupulously honest.' I mention this because the idea is now current that we are all on the take in one way or another. 'He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone': John viii. 7.

The Conservatives who are now going in for this kind of thing do not, however, have journalists primarily in mind - even though the gentlemen of the press may not be the most popular characters around Westminster these days. Their assumption of universal sin is made rather about the Opposition.

No doubt this approach strikes a national chord. In the days of the Wars of the Roses they were probably saying: 'Lancaster, York, what's the difference? They're all out for what they can get.' It is certainly an article of popular faith that retired Labour ministers are persons of unimaginable wealth. The Conservatives are trying to play up this feeling for all it is worth, with talk of union-sponsored MPs (who usually gain nothing more out of their sponsorship than a small contribution towards their election expenses).

It cannot be stated too strongly that what we now have is not a political but a Conservative crisis. It must be resolved by a Conservative prime minister. No doubt the sanctification of greed by Lady Thatcher has a good deal to do with what has been revealed in the last couple of weeks. The money-culture of the Conservative Party, which has been its dominating characteristic at least since the agricultural depression of the 19th century, has now broken down. This has happened partly because of the advent of Lady Thatcher and the changes which she helped bring about in the party.

Tory MPs, persons of the utmost insignificance, are expected to have a house in the constituency and at least a flat in London; to entertain; to educate their children privately and contract out of the NHS.

Unlike their predecessors, they do not mostly have money of their own or jobs, in the City or the Law, which enable them to earn a comfortable living in the mornings. So 'consultancies' it has to be.

In the middle of the week it looked as if Mr John Major had effected his escape. He had established a committee under Lord Nolan to examine current concerns about standards of conduct of all holders of public office, including arrangements relating to financial and commercial activities, and make recommendations.

Not only was this body to make preliminary recommendations in about six months. It was also to be permanent - like the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee, the Security Commission or the Tribunal and Commissioner on the Interception of Communications. Nobody has mentioned these bodies. But none has worked specially well. Indeed, one or two of them have worked spectacularly badly. There is little reason to suppose that the new committee will turn out to be any more successful.

What is clearly needed to investigate the allegations of Mr Mohamed al-Fayed and other matters is an inquiry under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921. This investigates specific matters and possesses the High Court's powers of summons. Lord Nolan could equally well have presided over such a body.

In 1948 C R Attlee appointed Mr Justice Lynskey to investigate the bribery of ministers over the granting of import licences. This led one Cockney woman on the top of a bus to say to her companion: 'That Lynskey, if you ask me, he's guilty all right.' There was the Parker Tribunal on the bank rate leak in 1957, which was widely held at the time to have destroyed the then Shadow Chancellor Harold Wilson (it did nothing of the kind). Then there was the Radcliffe Tribunal on the Vassall case in 1962, which was intended by Harold Macmillan to discredit the press (as it duly did).

From the evidence which the Guardian has already produced, it is unlikely that the newspapers would, if a 1921 tribunal were to be established, put up as poor a showing now as they did 30 years ago. But a tribunal will not be set up. Mr Major has not suggested it. And Mr Tony Blair has not asked for it. Indeed, on Tuesday he walked straight into Mr Major's trap - which was to broaden the issue as much as he could - like a mouse after a piece of cheddar. Incredibly, Mr Blair wanted to widen the inquiry still further.

Mr Major also announced the departure of Mr Neil Hamilton. This was an example of Tory lynch law at its most brutal, though scarcely at its most efficient. Last week I predicted that Hamilton would join Mates, Mellor and Yeo as the latest victim of Mr Major's complete confidence. So it has turned out. Earlier Mr Major had said that Mr Hamilton had been 'cleared' by Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, in relation to his and his wife's trip to the Paris Ritz and other matters. Mr Major further approved his decision to issue a writ on the ground that it was everyone's right to defend himself.

Five days later Mr Major's view was different. He wrote to Mr Hamilton that he 'must be concerned at the general perception of the Government and capacity of ministers to carry out their work without damaging distractions'. He believed that the 'cumulative impact' of the allegations he faced - even though he accepted that they were unsubstantiated - made it 'impossible' for him to carry out his responsibilities. Mr David Hunt insisted that these allegations were not so much unsubstantiated as 'unfounded', which made the dismissal all the more difficult to defend.

Though I sympathise with Mr Hamilton, I do not think he has any right to make a resignation speech as he did not resign, any more than Mr Norman Lamont did.

On Thursday Mr Blair asked about Mr Hamilton's dismissal and caused Mr Major to bluster unconvincingly. And other, bigger fish than Mr Hamilton could be discerned flopping over the mud. Mr Michael Howard has probably reached clear water. Mr Jonathan Aitken is still stuck in the swamp. He too stayed at the Ritz. His wife settled the bill in cash: a somewhat garagiste method of conducting one's affairs, I should have thought, but there we are. Mr Fayed says the account was settled by a Saudi businessman. On Friday Mr Aitken muddied the waters still further.

Mr Aitken likewise had been 'cleared' by Sir Robin, who seems to have too trusting a nature for this wicked world. He has told Mr Peter Preston, the editor of the Guardian, that there is nothing more to be squeezed from this particular orange. It is not, however, the function of the Cabinet Secretary to bandy metaphors with a newspaper editor. Nor is it his job to get the government out of a hole. That form of corruption began with Lord Armstrong, who was forced by Lady Thatcher to prevaricate at Westminster and to humiliate himself in Australia. This perversion of the constitution should also now be ended.

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