- Sleaze: The Corruption of Parliament by David Leigh and Ed Vulliamy
Fourth Estate, 263 pp, £9.99, January 1997, ISBN 1 85702 694 2
Betty Boothroyd has called on the media to provide ‘fairer and better balanced coverage’ of the House of Commons. ‘Above all,’ she has warned, they ‘should not use the occasion for highly generalised and unsubstantiated comments against Members of the House as a whole and the Parliamentary system’. The ‘occasion’ to which she refers is the inquiry being conducted by a new officer of her House, Sir Gordon Downey, Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Sir Gordon is investigating allegations of corruption made against certain MPs by the Guardian newspaper. The allegations referred to payments and relationships between MPs, lobbyists and businessmen dating back more than ten years: ten years in which the media now berated by the Speaker displayed an almost unanimous reluctance to refer in any way to these delicate matters.
Vol. 19 No. 5 · 6 March 1997
The David Willetts/Andrew Mitchell coverup of the Neil Hamilton affair occurred in the Select Committee on Members’ Interests, not the Select Committee on Privileges, as Paul Foot claimed (LRB, 20 February). The Members’ Interests Committee is a recent phenomenon, still only in its teens. It was set up to soothe the public after the Seventies Poulson case and, until Mitchell Jr was appointed, had been comparatively free from formal government interference. The Privileges Committee was approaching its half-millennium last year when Lord Nolan enforced a merger of the two bodies into the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. The main task of the Privileges Committee through the centuries had been to protect the Commons club from outside scrutiny and to blackball miscreant members – a fate I narrowly escaped nearly twenty years ago when I found myself in the dock for mentioning the real name of a certain (GCHQ-sensitive) Colonel ‘B’ on the floor of the House.
Thanks to one courageous Conservative MP, Quentin Davies, the new committee secured Willetts’s resignation after convicting him of ‘dissembling’; its next task is more daunting – to allocate blame for the Hamilton financial sleaze. Any criticism of Hamilton, I suspect, will be ‘balanced’ by scarcely veiled racist venom towards Mohamed Al Fayed, on whom Foot was a little hard. Directors of Lonrho and its predecessor mining companies in Southern Africa have spent the last hundred years seeking, and often successfully purchasing, favours from Conservative ministries. In winning his propaganda battle against Lonrho, Al Fayed was simply playing by English club rules.