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Wednesday, 5 December, 2001, 13:28 GMT
Sleaze 'firing' set to backfire
Elizabeth Filkin
Elizabeth Filkin has refused to go quietly
Nyta Mann

If the aim of the House of Commons commission had been to ease out a watchdog too watchful for their liking, it has somewhat backfired on them.

Elizabeth Filkin's departing criticisms to the Commons Speaker Michael Martin are to be looked into by a less easily ignorable guardian against political sleaze, the committee on standards in public life.

It is also hard to see how Tony Blair can avoid becoming involved in the controversy, not least because he made such great political capital from the subject before he became prime minister.

Mr Blair now finds himself holding the same position on a far-reaching sleaze controversy as did the predecessor he mercilessly attacked over this very issue when he was still leader of the opposition: that it is a matter for parliament, not government.

It is not that long ago that Mr Blair had no time for such an excuse.

Blair follows Major

John Major, who saw his administration engulfed by a tide of serious mega-sleaze allegations - cash for questions, the arms to Iraq Scott inquiry, ministerial favouritism for donors to Conservative funds - used exactly the same line in the run-up to the 1997 election.

Tony Blair
Tony Blair was once not so reluctant to comment on sleaze issues
Facing demands to intervene in the farce whereby the thoroughly discredited Neil Hamilton was still able to run as the Tory candidate for Tatton, Mr Major insisted that because a probe by MPs had not yet finally concluded, nothing could or should be done.

Mr Blair, needless to say, loudly condemned him and romped home to victory soon after.

Having taken up office declaring his New Labour government would be "whiter than white", Downing Street is now resorting to formulations familiar the Major years.

Elizabeth Filkin's role, according to Mr Blair's spokesman, "is entirely a matter for parliament and that is how it should be".

"She is appointed by parliament. Her rules are defined by parliament."

Any which way the subject was put to him, in fact, "this is not a matter for government".

Pushed on whether the prime minister had any opinion whatsoever on the affair, the spokesman could only say Mr Blair "is not indifferent to this, but he does not feel the government should intervene in the role of parliament".

Few see this as a sustainable position.

It may not be long before that much is conceded in Downing Street - not least because of from prime ministers of the past few decades Mr Major is probably the one Mr Blair least wishes to be compared with.

Mother of all sleaze watchdogs

The committee on standards in public life, chaired by Sir Nigel Wicks, will look at the issues raised by the Filkin row once her replacement has been appointed.

John Major
John Major used the same line Tony Blair has now issued
With Sir Nigel having already issued his disagreement with the commission's plans to downgrade the job, and his committee having an almost proprietorial interest through having created the post in the first place, his inquiry looks set to be highly uncomfortable for MPs and for Mr Blair.

The Wicks committee is, after all, the mother of sleaze watchdogs.

It was set up by John Major with the deepest reluctance only after a string of financial and political scandals had called into question the integrity and probity of the government and the Conservative Party.

Its investigations, at that stage chaired by Lord Nolan, were of immense political use to Labour.

The committee has no powers of its own, only the right to make recommendations which MPs would have to vote on. In other words, its proposals can be ignored - and have been in the past.

But given its history and the special circumstances in which it arose, should Sir Nigel Wicks produce a report critical of the treatment of Ms Filkin, it will be a severe embarrassment for those who are silent now but once made great noise about the need to stringently police of MPs' interests.

Commons standards commissioner, Elizabeth Filkin
"In my view they are not offering security for this post"
The BBC's Andrew Hosken
"Her most bruising encounter was with Keith Vaz"
David Heath of Common Standards & Priviliges Comm
"I think something very wrong has been happening"
See also:

25 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Cook defends Filkin job decision
19 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Sleaze watchdog faces axe
28 Jun 01 | UK Politics
Anti-sleaze investigator 'must go'
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