Major calls for moratorium to end election `dirty tricks'

Andrew Grice@IndyPolitics
Friday 11 February 2005 01:02

JOHN MAJOR called for a moratorium on the release of any more papers from past Tory governments in the run-up to the general election after accusing Labour of a "dirty tricks" campaign.

The former Conservative prime minister said he smelt a "fairly putrid rat" over the way the Government had handled the release of papers surrounding his government's retreat from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) on Black Wednesday, 16 September 1992.

Mr Major came close to accusing ministers of abusing the Freedom of Information Act to damage the Tories under Michael Howard before the general election. "I think a moratorium around election time to end some of these shenanigans would be appropriate," said Mr Major.

He said there had been "dirty work at the crossroads" by Labour over one erroneous report last week based on a Whitehall leak that he and Norman Lamont, his Chancellor at the time, had opposed the release of the papers. People had suggested to him "they smell a rat in terms of some of the things that have happened over the last few days".

"I agree with them and the rat is fairly putrid," he said. "There is absolutely no doubt about the fact that there was enemy action against Norman Lamont and me in the lobby [of political journalists] last week claiming that we were trying to block the papers."

Allies of Mr Major said he was also furious at a false claim that Black Wednesday had cost Britain pounds 27bn. The documents yesterday showed the debacle cost pounds 4bn.

Some of the most damaging references to the Major and Thatcher governments were withheld on the recommendations of officials in charge of the FOI Act. They included a claim in one document that "open warfare" between Margaret Thatcher and her Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, had destabilised the exchange rate. However, the phrases that had been censored were e-mailed to the BBC on the day the main papers were released.

Mr Major accepted government assurances that the leak of the redacted remarks was an honest mistake.

"I suspect it was an accident and the official who inadvertently did it is still hiding in a cupboard hoping nobody finds out," he said.

However, Mr Major said the new Act enforcing the release of ministerial papers had been badly drafted and needed to be revised.

"The way the Act has been drafted is self-evidently one-sided. It opens up former governments and it keeps closed and protects present governments. That can't be right," he said. "In some ways I would make it more open.

"I think the protection of economic forecasts, for example, could be lessened. I don't see why they should be held for years. Once a policy has been announced, based on a forecast, there's no reason why the forecast shouldn't be published."

Senior Tory MPs have complained that the Government was prepared to release the ERM papers relating to the past Conservative administration, but has refused to release its own potentially embarrassing papers.

The Treasury has withheld papers detailing confidential ministerial discussions of the five tests on which Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, rejected Britain's entry to the euro.

Lord Falconer, the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, defended the legislation. "There is a public interest balance to be struck. Where it is struck is ultimately to be decided not by politicians but by the Information Commissioner and the Information Tribunal," he said.

"The idea that this is in some way a restrictive Act or less effective than other FOI regimes in other countries is completely wrong. Everyone agrees you need some position whereby the formulation of policy could be done suitably confidentially."

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