Probe sought on MPs' conduct
PRIME Minister John Major was yesterday facing growing demands for an independent inquiry into the rules governing MPs conduct as pressure mounted for the minister at the centre of the cash-for-questions row to resign.
With MPs who formerly backed Neil Hamilton now abandoning him to his fate following claims that he enjoyed an all-expenses-paid stay at the Ritz Hotel in Paris with Mohamed Al-Fayed footing the bill, the minister looks likely to resign soon.
A number of prominent Tories were saying Mr Hamilton should fight his libel action against The Guardian newspaper, which made the initial claims that he accepted 'cash for questions', as a backbencher, not a minister.
Mr Hamilton has been under pressure to quit for some days following claims that he and Tim Smith, a junior Northern Ireland minister who has resigned, took money for questions in the House from Mr Al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods.
The name of the Home Secretary Michael Howard has even been drawn in with press reports that he intervened in citizenship applications by Mr Al-Fayed's brother, Ali. The Home Office said the Home Secretary was simply concerned to see that Mr Al-Fayed was treated fairly.
Labour's immigration spokesman, Graham Allen, wants an inquiry into Mr Howard's reported intervention, while its home affairs spokesman, Jack Straw, has said he would press Mr Howard to make a statement to the House of Commons.
In a further twist, Reuters news agency reported that Liberal Democrat MP Alex Carlile has asked Mr Major for assurances that the Government did not pay for an injunction that Mr Howard took out on Friday against the Financial Times to block a story on the Al-Fayed saga.
David Alton, the Liberal Democrat MP on the Commons Privileges Committee, investigating cash-for-questions cases involving two other Tories has now formally requested that both Mr Smith and Mr Hamilton be summoned to appear before the inquiry.
Mr Hamilton is a sophisticated political operator but others were angered by a flippant remark he made at an event in his constituency over the weekend claiming he would even have to register a biscuit he was offered by schoolchildren.
Even Cabinet ministers are inferring he should go to rid the Government of its image of 'sleaze'. David Hunt, the Minister for Open Government, commented: 'My view is that ministers and MPs must never allow themselves to get into any position where anyone outside could level an accusation against them that they weren't adhering to the highest possible standards.' Nobody should take gifts or hospitality which could make the public doubt their ability to 'stand up for the highest possible standards'.
Others want an entirely independent inquiry, outside Westminster. John Biffen, former leader of the House said: 'Perhaps Westminster is too important to be left purely to politicians.'