When MPs start taking the biscuits

Hamilton was warmly supported throughout his bluster; there was rather a lot of `there but for the grace of God ... '
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The Independent Online
The humiliating collapse of the Neil Hamilton and Ian Greer libel case against The Guardian ought to reignite public anger about corruption in British politics. Up to now, we have tended to shy away from the word, preferring the vaguer, slithery term ``sleaze''. But for politicians to take envelopes stuffed with cash and work to order in the House of Commons is corrupt.

Hamilton is portraying himself as a hounded victim of vindictive press reporting, driven from justice by personal poverty. Looking in from the outside, he seems more like a bumptious corner-cutter disgraced by good, old-fashioned journalism.

How far does the damage spread in British politics? This has not been a case packed with heroes - Mohammed al Fayed, whose information gave The Guardian its story, was the man stuffing the MPs' envelopes, and we report this morning on Labour MPs who also took payments from Mr Greer, despite his reputation. But the most severe damage is to the Conservative Party, whose leader had been trying so hard to reclaim some moral high ground of late.

A trial, though, would have been worse. Hidden books and minutes would have been exposed. With the Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine and a galere of lesser Conservative luminaries in the witness box, and day after day of evidence dominating news bulletins, it might well have helped finish Major's administration off in the most spectacular way.

Just when the Government had banked on beginning to really close the gap with Labour, using its own conference, the Queen's speech and the Budget, there would have been a serious risk of the Hamilton-Greer affair moving the polls the other way. Corruption has been out of the news; but there is no evidence that the public are less censorious when reminded of it.

To a limited extent, the collapse of the trial will cause similar damage to the Tory cause. It gave Tony Blair a gift yesterday in his combat with Mr Major for the mantle of morality. But one of the bleak truths of modern journalism is that the media's attention span is short: following a trail is important, but following a trial is so much easier.

So, what follows? There will be more revelations, I expect; an unpacking and unwinding of quiet, hole-in-the-corner deals from years ago. The list of named MPs who have taken money for questions or lobbying ministers will grow. There will be, almost inevitably, an accumulation of small but somehow particularly embarrassing details - such as the image of MPs calling persistently for their envelopes from a company security man.

But none of this will change our essential information, which is that MPs acted as covert and paid messenger-boys for commercial interests, recruited and organised by go-betweens calling themselves ``consultants''. This was what we knew before, when the Nolan committee was first recruited by the Prime Minister; but now we have more proof, more detail.

If nothing more is done, then the Tories will emerge more damaged than Labour, but the real victim will be what remains of vigorous parliamentary democracy in Britain. Parliament's strongest support isn't in any constitutional textbook; it is the enthusiastic assent of the people. That has been ebbing away, partly because of minor but disturbing corruption. Nothing menacing, just a dull weariness and suspicion has replaced our patriotic liking for the Westminster way. If it were not thus, then the transfers of power to the European Union and the private sector would not have been possible.

And here is a funny thing: Mr Hamilton is a staunch Euro-sceptic, forever fulminating in defence of British parliamentary sovereignty. Yet he and his like, by failing to observe private and previously unwritten understandings about acceptable public behaviour, have contributed to undermining it.

So, unless one is an utter cynic about the parliamentary system, it barely needs saying that the reputation of the Commons must be protected against repetitions of these cases. Mr Major will surely say that this is all historical stuff, debris from the days before he and Lord Nolan's chaps cleaned up the Commons.

There is truth in that, but not quite enough to reassure us. The Nolan process resulted in two important changes. First, the ``MP for hire'' was outlawed: paid advocacy was banned. Second, Members were required to publish, within broad bands, their earnings as MPs from outside interests. Though Mr Major himself was away on the night of the vote, 6 November last year, he fully supported the majority of Conservatives who voted against the disclosure of earnings; it was carried only thanks to a far- sighted minority of Tory rebels who realised how deep the damage had been to Parliament.

These changes were indeed a big break with the past and regarded as unconstitutional by some Tory traditionalists. They argued that if you shackle MPs with such rules, and put them under the watchful eye of a parliamentary ombudsman, currently Sir Gordon Downey, then you reduce them to salaried, gelded nothings.

It is a good, rather romantic-sounding case: who would not prefer a Parliament of stalwart independents to an assembly of nervous order-takers? The truth, however, is that the 20th-century refinement of the party system has already reduced the vast majority of MPs to loyal acquiescence under the whips. All the Nolan process did was to cut away some easy sources of income which were being abused, and oblige MPs to tell their constituents more about who was paying for their time.

The question now is whether the Hamilton affair, and the question-marks over nearly two dozen other MPs, mean that the Commons should go further. In practice, it is out of the question that the Conservative Party will. Even the mildest versions of Nolan reformism produced furious rebellions in the party; in its current fragile state, it is incapable of agreeing to any further changes.

So the burden passes to Tony Blair and, perhaps, Paddy Ashdown. Coming from different traditions, and less in thrall to Burke, Dicey and other Westminster theorists, they would find it less hard than Tories to introduce yet tougher curbs.

Yet even after Nolan, the Commons remains essentially a club, whose members often protect one another. Hamilton was warmly supported throughout his bluster; there was rather a lot of ``there but for the grace of God ... "

Clubs are warm places, and enjoyable no doubt. But they are not good at self-criticism. At the very least, the rules need to be policed by a watchdog with stronger powers than Sir Gordon. If not, there will be further MPs gaily taking the biscuit; and the reputation of our most important institution will decline some more. Yet more regulations and officialdom at Westminster; fewer colourful characters. It is a somewhat dismal recommendation. But a duller Commons is infinitely preferable to a more corrupt one.