British political life is being "poisoned" by media claims that senior members of the government have acted corruptly, Prime Minister John Major declared yesterday.
He called for an immediate investigation of the allegations and for that report to be urgently given to Parliament.
On the eve of the ruling Conservative Party's annual conference, Mr. Major was responding to claims in Sunday newspapers that David Willetts, one of his top ministerial aides, had tried to block a parliamentary probe into the allegedly dishonest activities of another government minister who was forced to resign two years ago.
Mr. Willetts, the claims said, had tried to sidetrack a probe in 1994 into the actions of Neil Hamilton, a minister who allegedly had accepted large sums of cash from a lobbyist in return for asking questions in the Commons.
Labour Party joins the fray
Major's angry comments came at the end of a week in which the Labour opposition accused his administration of persistent "sleaze," and national newspapers alleged that over-close relations between political lobbyists and senior Conservative parliamentarians had corrupted the conduct of government.
Coming just as the ruling Conservatives were preparing to frame battle plans for the general election expected next spring, the new sleaze allegations appeared to disadvantage Major, who styles himself an advocate of clean, open government.
Newspapers generally considered friendly to the Conservatives painted pictures of a British leader mired in allegations that supporters of his government had overstepped the mark in dealings with lobbying firms. The Sunday Times headlined a two-page report "Floundering in a sea of sleaze." The Observer reported "a nasty smell in the House of Commons."
The trigger of what promises to turn into a serious crisis for Major has been the conduct of Mr. Hamilton, minister for trade until 1994. In that year the Guardian newspaper accused Hamilton of accepting cash for asking questions in the House of Commons, and substantial gifts from Mohammed al-Faed, owner of Harrods, London's world-famous department store.
Hamilton and lobbyist Ian Greer, whom the paper said was involved in the alleged payments, denied the claims and sued the Guardian. Last week the two men dropped their actions against the paper, which then proceeded to publish documents it said it would have used in court if the case had come to trial.
By abandoning their legal action, Hamilton and Mr. Greer unleashed a flood of accusations. Yet for most of the week Major appeared confident that he could contain the problem.
But on Sunday Britain's 10 nationally circulating Sunday newspapers reported that Willetts, a leading Conservative intellectual, had tried, when a government whip, to persuade the chairman of the parliamentary committee on standards to block an inquiry into Hamilton's activities.
If proved, such interference by a government whip, the Observer reported, would "breach the constitutional independence of parliamentary committees," and thus be unlawful. Donald Dewar, Labour's chief whip in the Commons, said yesterday: "A very serious situation is developing. There is now prima facie evidence that the government machine was conspiring to block a proper investigation of serious allegations for the sake of political expediency."
Major, in a televised interview yesterday, complained of "kangaroo courts" being conducted through the newspapers. He said Sir Gordon Downey, the commissioner for parliamentary standards, should act swiftly to investigate the claims against Willetts.
A surprise to many
The reported involvement of Willetts in that controversy has surprised analysts and embarrassed Major. Until he became a member of Parliament in 1992, Willetts was best known as an intellectual whose influential books about the Conservative Party attempted to redefine its aims.
A central theme of his writing is that modern conservatism should strive to occupy the moral high ground of politics.
After entering Parliament, Willetts rose rapidly in government ranks and currently is heavily involved in planning party strategy for the coming general election.