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Tuesday, July 7, 1998 Published at 12:01 GMT 13:01 UK

UK Politics

Stand-off in row over cash-for-access

All sides in the cash-for-access row are sticking to their guns - the prime minister is standing by his aide, The Observer is standing by its story and the Tories are insisting the affair proves Labour hypocrisy and 'cronyism'.

Tony Blair, making his first public comment on the row, said he demanded the highest standards of propriety from his ministers and officials, but insisted he would not take action without proof.

The prime minister did not mention Roger Liddle by name, but said it would not be right to sack someone and ruin their life without proper proof.

Mr Blair said that The Observer newspaper had made an allegation against a member of his staff and claimed to have a tape recording proving this - but had now backed down and admitted that no such tape exists.

Rules to be clarified

However, the prime minister went on to say that the government had to show that it was "purer than pure" and that if any impropriety was proved then the severest action would be taken.

He said that many people were "fluttering around" the government, "trying to make all sorts of claims of influence".

Because of this, Mr Blair said he had asked Cabinet Secretary Sir Richard Wilson to remind ministers and officials of the rules governing contact with lobby firms and to make sure that the rules were implemented.

Government accused of sidetracking

[ image: Draper: suspended from job]
Draper: suspended from job
While admitting that it has no tape recordings to back up its report, The Observer has stuck to the basic point of its story - that Mr Liddle offered undercover reporters access to ministers in collaboration with disgraced lobbyist Derek Draper - and accused the government of trying to sidetrack the whole issue..

Jocelyn Targett and Peter Kilfoyle debate The Observer's credibility on BBC Radio 4's Today programme
The paper said there were no tapes of the conversation but stressed that the journalists behind the story had made detailed notes at the time.

Downing Street had challenged The Observer to produce audio tapes supporting its story by 1100 BST on Tuesday.

Observer Deputy Editor Jocelyn Targett: "This is a pretty cheap tactic."
Observer deputy editor Jocelyn Targett was scathing about the government's tactic in issuing the ultimatum: "This is a pretty cheap tactic by the government to try and turn the story onto The Observer. The Observer is not the story, the government is.

"We have exposed a problem right at the heart of government, inside 10 Downing Street."

He also accused the government of failing to understand not only the paper's allegations, but the way newspaper journalists work.

"We have never claimed to have a tape of a conversation between Liddle and our two journalists at the Banqueting House.

"It's a perfectly legitimate journalistic practice ... they were comments made by Liddle to two journalists. They were so astonished by it that they wrote it down immediately," he said.

Tories see endemic problem

Meanwhile, the Conservatives have seized on the affair as an example of general cronyism and sleaze surrounding the government.

Party deputy chairman Michael Ancram said it tied in with allegations surrounding Paymaster General Geoffrey Robinson and the refusal of Foreign Secretary Robin Cook to hand over documents in the arms-to-Africa row.

Mr Ancram said he would be tabling Commons questions about the matter and accused the government of having failed to deny the central accusations - that reports were leaked to lobbyists and access to ministers offered for money.

Mr Ancram admitted that the last Tory government had problems with standards in public life but had addressed them.

Labour had promised to maintain the highest possible standards, he said, but time and again had failed to do so.

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