Paul Foot

Members declare an unhealthy interest

(November 1996)

From Notes of the Month, Socialist Review, No.202, November 1996, p.8.
Copyright © 1996 Socialist Review.
Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

John Major decided many months ago to cling to office right up to the deadline (1 May 1997). Nothing seems more likely to interfere with this carefully constructed timetable than the government’s corruption. When the Guardian revealed two years ago that the mendacious Harrods store boss, Mohamed Al Fayed, had been spraying money round politicians in exchange for questions and influence in parliament, the government responded in the usual way: by passing the buck to a committee.

Lord Nolan, a former tax barrister, was the man chosen for the chair of this committee and he promptly proposed the appointment of the former auditor general, Sir Gordon Downey, as a new Parliamentary Commissioner of Standards.

Sir Gordon’s embarrassing job was to supervise the behaviour of MPs to see if they lived up to the rules set down in their register of interests.

These rules derive from the old fashioned view that an MP’s main job is to represent constituents. Instead of banning all MPs’ pay except their parliamentary salaries, the rules allow ‘outside interests’ provided (a) they are declared and (b) they don’t lead to conflict with the MP’s representative role. All this is entirely fanciful. Pretty well every Tory MP has some ‘outside interest’ which pays better than the parliamentary salary, and this leads to constant corruption.

Neil Hamilton, perhaps the nastiest of all the extreme right wingers who went to parliament in the 1980s, enjoyed a standard of life far beyond anything which could be bought with his parliamentary salary. He was apparently quite prepared to distribute ‘favours’ to people who would pay him (or set up an account at John Lewis for his wife) even when he was a minister.

When Hamilton was fingered, the government reacted exactly as it had done during the Scott inquiry. It concentrated not on rooting out the rotten apple but on protecting it. The importance of the leaked memo from Thatcherite whip David Willetts is that it shows how the Tory whips’ office works: ignoring the corruption and seeking to limit its exposure. The main reason for this approach is that there is not one rotten apple but a whole barrel of them.

So arrogant is the government in its death agonies, and so recklessly does it proceed, that it is constantly being found out. In the process, it irritates many of its own supporters. The glorious spectacle of the awful ‘Two Brains’ Willetts being gored by a Tory backbencher on the standards select committee was a sign of the nervousness and vulnerability of the government. Nor can ministers shake off the Hamilton sleaze. It will loom large over them in constant committees and inquiries until the election.

The other point about the Willetts scandal, however, is less exhilarating. It is that the key questioner was Tory, not Labour. The parliamentary Labour Party is far less corrupt than the Tories. Very few Labour MPs have highly paid ‘outside interests’. The whole sleaze story presents a marvellous opportunity to hound and bully the government to the polls, and so disrupt its timetable. The fact that Labour can attack without fear of counter-attack makes their performance even more pathetic than usual.

The silence of New Labour’s frontbencher on the committee, Ann Taylor, and Labour’s determination not to resign wholesale from a committee which is so obviously rigged, is proof that they prefer the medieval conventions of the House of Commons to driving the Tories out.


Last updated on 27.11.2004