'Oh, how nave can you get? The last thing the Tories want at this stage is to . . .'
Excuse me. If this is a nave position, I may as well proceed with the navety. I may as well state the matter as plainly as I navely can. A thousand quid for putting down a written question is not a consultancy fee. Everybody knows that. The MPs themselves knew that it was not a consultancy fee. Mr Tredinnick, when asked if this was the sort of work he did, said: 'It's hardly work.'
Mr Riddick said he would declare: 'July 1994 consultancy project carried out for Mr Jonathan Calvert.' It became a 'project'. The description suggests a mismatch between the actual task and the fee. 'July 1994 tabling of written question for Mr Jonathan Calvert' would have blown the whistle on the whole thing.
What another Tory MP, John Gorst, told the Sunday Times reporter is very instructive. He couldn't take money for asking a question because 'it's legal, but it doesn't look very nice if you ask questions because you have been paid to do so'. If, on the other hand, there was a bona fide consultancy project on offer in the future, that would be 'more in my field. I am quite prepared to ask a question, forgetting any question of a retainer or anything like that . . . And then, if at some subsequent stage you felt that there was something we could make an arrangement about . . . '
The proprieties clearly are: there must not be, or must not be seen to be, any linkage between the tabling of the question and the acceptance of the fee. Mr Gorst instructs Mr Calvert in the way these things are done.
In essence is he saying: 'What you are proposing, while legal, looks dodgy. But there is another way of achieving your aim without incurring opprobrium. It's called consultancy. What you do is . . . '
It is an instructive conversation. Had it been me giving the advice, and being recorded doing so, I would have thought twice before subsequently taking the high moral ground in the Commons. But there was Mr Gorst, in last week's debate, accusing the Sunday Times of a whole host of things, including invading the House.
Mr Calvert had explained to Mr Gorst that he wanted some information and 'it seems the only way I can get it is by asking a written question in Parliament. I would be willing to pay for this'. At this point in the conversation Mr Gorst had the ideal opportunity to treat Mr Calvert to a speech about not corrupting the Mother of Parliaments. He missed his cue.
A fee informally paid to secure the tabling of a written question is a step on the slippery slope to what is known colloquially as 'grease money'. It is a familiar thing throughout the Third World, and if you have lived in societies run on grease money you will know how deeply depressing its consequences can be.
Grease money is a way of securing a place in the fast lane - getting your passport renewed quickly, for instance. It rapidly progresses to being the only way you can get your passport renewed, or a vehicle registered, or any other official service we would take as a right.
Thus grease money sets its own tax on public services, from which it excludes all those who cannot afford to pay it. But if, for instance, you are a fisherman who cannot afford to register your boat, you are on the wrong side of the law every time you practise your trade. This in turn makes you vulnerable to demands for grease money from the authorities.
This is the way that grease money comes to pervert the whole of society. Everyone is breaking the law - the ones in the fast lane because they routinely bribe public officials, the ones in the slow lane because they cannot afford to legalise their lives.
When everyone becomes vulnerable in this way, no one can clean up society, because no one is himself clean. As soon as a politician tries to clear up one area of corruption, he is brought down by some 'inspired' investigation. And so the downward spiral goes.
What Mr Calvert, posing as a businessman, told Mr Gorst was that the only way to get the information he needed seemed to be by means of a written question. He was prepared to pay for information. Mr Gorst said: that's not illegal but it doesn't look nice.
Mr Tredinnick and Mr Riddick both minded the way it looked, but only to the extent of wanting to keep the matter confidential (Mr Tredinnick), have the cheques sent to their home addresses, and make sure that any subsequent declaration of interest, if made (Mr Tredinnick was unclear on the point), would be somewhat on the vague side.
Notably absent from the scene are any MPs prepared to come forward and say: 'What these two did is not wrong. I routinely charge a thousand quid for this kind of work. Nobody wants to admit putting their own private tax on a public service.'
But the reason for the Sunday Times investigation was that the paper had learnt that a thousand quid might be the going rate for a written question. If it is the going rate, but a secret going rate, then it's obvious that it is a serious malpractice, and recognised as such by those others involved.
If this private tax is not illegal, then the issue of the MPs' behaviour is surely one for the Tory party to decide on, and to act on very forcefully indeed. Mr Major was said to be hopping mad with the two MPs caught out. But how hopping mad is he? Is he mildly hopping mad? Will he wake up one day and say: 'Let bygones be bygones?' Or is he profoundly hopping mad?
Is what annoys him the embarrassment caused? Or does he think there are serious issues here?
The facts appear not to be in contention, despite one early denial by Mr Tredinnick that he had expected a cheque. The evidence has been made public, the story stands up. Why don't the Conservatives disown these two MPs?Reuse content