The public airing of private grief: Colin Brown watched the Commons absorb the tragedy of Stephen Milligan's death

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The Independent Online
ALL THE ingredients were present yesterday for another of the steamy novels about parliamentary affairs that have erupted like a rash across Westminster. The tragic death of Stephen Milligan, news of which had filtered through to MPs over the previous 24 hours, prompted a host of questions around the lobbies. Uppermost, though, was the cover-up theory.

A policeman had seen a close friend of Mr Milligan's in tears in a House of Commons cafeteria on Monday afternoon. He noted the time. It was 4pm. Officially, though, the body was discovered at 4.23pm. Because of the apparent discrepancy in the times, he reported what he had seen to his superiors to pass on to the police investigation team.

This information fed speculation about the bizarre circumstances surrounding the death of the Tory MP who had seemed to be moving smoothly up the party ranks, cabinet office almost within his grasp. Early warning of the tragedy could have enabled the party to mount a damage limitation exercise before the news of Mr Milligan's unfortunate death leaked out.

The Prime Minister was informed between 5.30 and 6pm. By 6.30pm, the whips seemed prepared for the worst. While the police were still refusing to confirm the identity of the body, one of the whips quietly confirmed to journalists that it was Mr Milligan. Other MPs and ministers stood around in stunned groups as news filtered through the members' lobby. One former minister sank to one of the benches, appalled.

Grief at the loss of a friend and colleague was doubled by the morale-

sapping blow to the Government's hopes of recovery. One of the authors of the latest crop of Westminster novels, Edwina Currie, a university contemporary of Mr Milligan's, looked shocked at hearing the news, shortly before the 7pm vote. One MP loudly telephoned his wife with graphic details. 'It could be murder,' he said.

Sir Norman Fowler, chairman of the Conservative Party, who spent two hours at Hammersmith police station on Monday evening, went on the BBC Today programme to praise Mr Milligan and bolster party morale. His contribution appeared designed to set the tone for what others should say. A steady train of MPs offered their tributes to whichever branch of the media would listen.

As to the circumstances of Mr Milligan's death, Sir Norman was cautious in the extreme, declining to comment until the investigation was complete. The leadership was clearly desperate to avoid anything that might mire the Government in another debilitating sex scandal. They had to stop too much being read into a sordid, solitary death. It was sad, but it had no far- reaching political consequences, apart from the difficulty of a by-election, which they must expect to lose. But Mr Milligan's death cast a shadow over the Commons. On a day when the Government would have wanted to celebrate a cut in interest rates, this was not the dominating issue.

The demise of Mr Milligan was the only topic of conversation around the lobbies. A shadow minister attributed the spate of sex scandals that had hit the Tory Party to the carelessness of a Government in power for too long. 'The new breed of Tories, the new intake, think they are invincible,' he said. 'It's the feeling they can do what they like and get away with it.'

After doing his duty by the Today programme, Sir Norman went on to Downing Street for a meeting with Chris Meyer, the Prime Minister's new press secretary. They met to prepare the ground Prime Minister's Question Time. The likelihood of a Labour question about Mr Milligan's death, and the best form of reply, was bound to be on the agenda. In the event, it was not needed. None the less, this was one of the worst sessions of Question Time that John Major has had since taking office.

When he arrived in the chamber he was given a ragged cheer by Tory backbenchers. Some of them shook their order papers. The cheering seemed hopelessly inappropriate, given the circumstances. Perhaps it was an attempt to show that it was 'business as usual'.

Despite this show of support, Mr Major seemed ill at ease. Recently, he has got the better of the exchanges with John Smith. Yesterday, he was tripped by a question from the Labour back benches by Lynne Jones, MP for Birmingham Selly Oak, who asked him to jusify the reported pounds 10m pay-off for the chairman of British Aerospace, who had engineered the sale of Rover to BMW.

'It is not a matter for me,' said Mr Major and sat down.

The brevity surprised his own side, but produced guffaws from the Opposition benches. It was intended to reinforce the Government's belief in private sector solutions, but it sounded as though the Prime Minister had given up on British industry and on his own responsibilities. Tory MPs looked dismayed at this fumbled reply. They shuffled their feet; they talked to each other. He was beginning to lose the House.

Angela Eagle, the Labour MP for Wallasey, had been planning to ask about the Pergau dam in Malaysia, the subject of a so-called arms-for-aid controversy. When she was called by the Speaker, she quickly changed her mind, asking the Prime Minister how he could say that British industry was not a matter for him. The reply did not matter. By that time, Mr Major had lost the House completely and Labour MPs knew they had scored. In the lobbies, as everyone streamed out of the chamber to the tearooms, Labour MPs excitedly patted Ms Eagle on the shoulder and complimented her on her question.

'I was going to ask about the Pergau dam, but I saw an open goal. So I went for it,' she told friends.

Labour MPs went off for their tea in high spirits. Tory MPs, who had anyway been subdued at the start of Question Time, put a brave face on the session, but counted the cost. They are left wondering how much more they will have to withstand.

'We are absolutely shocked,' said one Parliamentary Private Secretary - like Mr Milligan, on the lowest rung of the ministerial ladder. 'He was a close friend. We all respected him. We never dreamt there was anything like this. We're just left wondering, where is it all going to end?'

Mr Major would have been forgiven for being preoccupied, both with Bosnia and Mr Milligan's death, when he faced Question Time. But he is faced, yet again, with hauling the party out of the trough of rumour, innuendo and sordid reality into which it has slipped again. He needed to impress his troops, but failed. From such small set-backs reputations can unravel, like alibis in a mystery story - of which the circumstances of Mr Milligan's death are all too reminiscent.

(Photograph omitted)