An Election Side Show

Article excerpt

Everyone - media and general public alike - had ideas about why Labour won the General Election. Some gave pride of place to 'Time for a Change'. Others said it was the NHS, broken promises on taxation, pensions, Europe, or something else. What was remarkable was the number of times one heard the word sleaze - usually said with emphasis.

In the Tatton constituency, personalities and 'sleaze' were virtually the only issues and sleaze was always top of the list. Maybe, if pressed, someone would express concern about Europe and Monetary Union, but everything faded into insignificance against the really big local issue which revolved round the personalities of the two main candidates - the Conservative, Neil Hamilton and the Independent, Martin Bell.

Over the life of the last Parliament and amid growing Conservative unpopularity, there were many unhealthy stories about Tory MPs becoming involved in 'unfortunate' financial transactions. There were accusations about payment for tabling Parliamentary Questions and, to make things worse, some were admitted. Some cases were dealt with by resignations and might well have faded somewhat in public memory in the course of the election campaign as did the spicy stories about extra-marital and 'kinky' goings-on.

The continued presence of Neil Hamilton as Conservative candidate seeking re-election in Tatton ensured that the issue of 'cash for questions' did not. Whether he had gone beyond the bounds of law or Parliamentary procedure soon became irrelevant. He admitted that he had spent a weekend with his wife at the Ritz Hotel in Paris as the guest of Mohammed Fayed, the Egyptian owner of Harrods. He also admitted that he had taken an 'ex-gratia payment' (not, he insisted, a commission) from a firm to whom he introduced a constituent. Had these things been entered in the register of members' interests at the time, it is possible that he would still have been a Minister when the election came. It can be argued that disclosure was not necessary under the rules as they then existed. Mr. Hamilton is a tax barrister and says that since the payment was ex-gratia, there was no need to declare it for tax purposes. Nevertheless, as soon as these two things became known, he was in trouble. People really do not believe that MPs should behave in that way.

The strongly anti-Tory Guardian newspaper claimed that he was one of a number of MPs who had taken payment for tabling questions. He denied this hotly and began proceedings for libel. The media now kept quiet. The case was sub-judice. Neil Hamilton has a reputation for being litigious. He had already received heavy damages from the BBC which had unjustly accused him of fascist tendencies. He must have been confident that, with a clear conscience about the allegations in The Guardian, he could do the same again.

This time, however, the MP for Tatton ran into trouble. First of all, he came up against an ancient law which prevented evidence of proceedings in Parliament being used as evidence. This introduced a delay until he managed to get an amendment by inserting a new clause in a convenient bill then going through the House.

Disaster struck when Neil Hamilton had to withdraw the action almost on the eve of its opening. He had been acting jointly with Ian Greet Associates, the firm of lobbyists alleged to have paid for questions to be asked. On a legal technicality making it impossible for MP and firm to be jointly represented by the same counsel, he had to look for new advisers and this would have been beyond his means. With the action out of the way, it was no longer sub-judice and there was no restraint on The Guardian or anyone else.

Unable to afford continued litigation, Mr. Hamilton then determined to rely on the enquiry now in the hands of Sir Gordon Downey, the Parliamentary Ombudsman who would, he thought, report to the new Select Committee on Standards and Privileges in good time before the election. …