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Wednesday, 12 January, 2000, 12:21 GMT
How sleaze entered the political dictionary

Neil and Christine Hamilton failed to clear their names in the cash-for-questions row

By political correspondent Nick Assinder

Less than a decade ago the word "sleaze" did not exist in the British political dictionary.

Neil Hamilton and his famous brown envelopes changed that forever and his antics led to the creation of the committee on standards in public life.

The move opened a can of worms, and politics went through a long phase when it was dominated by one sleaze allegation after another.

The committee has just presented its sixth report in which it calls for new measures to deal with MPs and ministers accused of wrongdoing.

It also recognises that the doubling in the number of government advisers under New Labour has raised questions of accountability and influence.

Handed to police

If the committee's recommendations on bribery had been in force at the time of the Hamilton affair it is highly likely the entire issue would have been handed over to the police to investigate.

Committee chairman and "sleazebuster" Lord Neill claims things have got better in the five years since the committee was set up.

Lord Neill: things are getting better
And, speaking to News Online after launching the report, he insisted he was not depressed by the fact either that a standards committee was needed at all, or that it was likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

"This is part of modern life and we are in a much better state than most other countries in the world," he said.

He appeared to accept that things had taken a turn for the worse over previous years, but that politicians on all sides were now committed to tackling sleaze in all its forms and things had improved.

The emphasis of his committee's work had now switched away from the misdeeds of MPs such as Mr Hamilton and towards the influence and power wielded by special advisors who have privileged access to ministers.

But it is the image of disgraced former frontbencher Neil Hamilton taking cash backhanders in brown envelopes from Harrods owner Mohamed al-Fayed which has taken a firm hold in voters' imaginations and proved impossible to shift.

John Major launched the "sleazebusting" committee

The Hamilton scandal - which recently saw the former MP losing a libel case against Mr al-Fayed - traumatised the Tories in 1994 and has continued to haunt British politics.

Mr Major acted swiftly and created the committee to investigate politicians behaviour.

It was too much for many "honourable members" who found it deeply insulting that their integrity should be open to any question.

Corruption to perjury

But during its five year existence, the committee worked against a background which saw some of the most extraordinary incidents from alleged corruption to perjury by a former minister.

Just three months after squeaky-clean New Labour was elected to power, Tony Blair was forced to go onto television and ask voters to trust him.

He had been accused of being ready to trim the government's policy on tobacco advertising after Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone donated 1m to Labour coffers.

The prime minister insisted he was a "pretty straight guy" who would never do anything improper.

Lord Neill told him to give the money back, which he did, but there was more to come.

There was the "Drapergate" scandal where a former aide to then minister Peter Mandelson, Derek "Dolly" Draper, was accused of boasting to clients of his new lobbying business that he could introduce them the most powerful people in government.

Peter Mandelson: Resigned over home loan
Then, probably the most damaging, was the revelation that Mr Mandelson had been given a preferential loan by millionaire paymaster general Geoffrey Robinson to allow him to buy an upmarket home he couldn't otherwise afford.

Mr Mandelson tried to hold on to his job - for a day - but was then forced to resign. Mr Robinson went shortly after.

The affair sent shockwaves through the government and it's image was badly tarnished.

Meanwhile, Welsh Secretary Ron Davies got into all sorts of trouble after taking a walk on Clapham Common - a notorious gay haunt - and refusing to reveal what he was up to.

He finally admitted to being bisexual, but only after his political career was destroyed.

Tory turmoil

The Tories suffered their fair share of turmoil as well.

The Hamilton affair refused to go away and continued to cast a shadow over the party, despite William Hague's instance that he would not put up with any sleaze.

There were constant demands to know where the party got its cash from which came to a head over allegations about party treasurer Michael Ashcroft, who is based in Florida but who bankrolls the party to the tune of 1m a year.

Jeffrey Archer's past came back to haunt the Tories

And, of course, there was the 13-year-old Lord Jeffrey Archer scandal which came back to haunt the Tories. The official Tory candidate for London mayor was forced to admit he had cooked up a false alibi to cover him for the night he had been accused of sleeping with a prostitute more than a decade previously.

He quit as mayoral candidate but the scandal sent the Tories into shock.

And former minister Johnathan Aitken has just left prison after being jailed for perjury.

At the same time, the government has constantly been accused of abusing its power and turning Whitehall into a New Labour propaganda machine.

So, five years after the committee was created there appears to be plenty to keep it occupied.

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See also:
12 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Spin doctors face greater controls
07 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Aitken freed from prison
23 Dec 99 |  UK
The al-Fayed libel trial

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