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Amid 'Sleaze' Charges, Major Fires 2nd Minister : Britain: The Tory leader also tells Parliament he was approached by an 'intermediary' from a key figure in ethics scandal.

October 26, 1994|WILLIAM TUOHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — In an effort to dispel widespread charges of "sleaze" in his Conservative government, Prime Minister John Major fired a second minister Tuesday for unspecified "allegations" concerning his ethical conduct.

Major publicly fired Member of Parliament Neil Hamilton, a colorful Trade Department minister, in a statement to the House of Commons after Hamilton had refused to resign when accused of unethically assisting Mohammed Al Fayed, head of the famous London department store Harrods.

Hamilton's ouster follows that last week of another minister, Tim Smith, after Smith was accused of accepting money to raise questions in the House of Commons on behalf of Al Fayed's successful takeover of the department store's corporate body, the House of Fraser.

In his Commons speech Tuesday, the prime minister also said that he had been approached recently by an Al Fayed "intermediary" who wanted to discuss the House of Fraser takeover fight.

Major said he rejected the overture, but neither he nor his aides at the prime minister's office would identify the "intermediary."

Following Major's speech, Conservative Member of Parliament Peter Tapsell asked in the Commons if Major was being subjected to possible "blackmail," and the prime minister said the matter was being referred to the director of public prosecutions.

Al Fayed quickly denied any suggestion he was involved in trying to blackmail the prime minister.

In one side of an exchange of letters released late Tuesday, Hamilton charged that he was a victim of "foully motivated rumor" and a "media witch hunt," and he vowed to clear his name. In reply, Major said he was concerned about the "general perception" of his government and that the Hamilton episode was a "damaging distraction."

In delivering the dramatic announcements in Parliament, Major said that Hamilton had been cleared by Cabinet Secretary Robin Butler of "cash for questions" but that other "unconnected allegations" had arisen recently. He did not specify what those allegations were.

Members of Parliament can submit written questions that lead to formal answers by relevant government departments that can be embarrassing to corporations--in this case, the conglomerate Lonrho, which controlled Harrods and was fighting the Al Fayed takeover.

Earlier this year, two back-bench Conservative members of Parliament were accused of accepting funds from a leading lobbying firm to ask questions in Parliament on behalf of Al Fayed.

The sleaze issue has been seized upon by the opposition Labor and Liberal parties, which have accused Tory members of Parliament of signing on to lobbyists' payrolls as "consultants," sometimes without declaring their interest, as required by parliamentary rules.

On Tuesday, Home Secretary Michael Howard confirmed that he too had been investigated by Cabinet Secretary Butler during the cash-for-questions inquiry, but he said he had "never been guilty of any impropriety in the conduct of any of my responsibilities."

Al Fayed, a big contributor to the Conservative Party under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, has made threats to reveal that various government ministers accepted money or favors from him.

The Egyptian-born Al Fayed sought support in his takeover bid for the House of Fraser and withdrawal of an unfavorable Trade Department report on his activities and business background.

Major also announced Tuesday that he is setting up a blue-ribbon commission headed by a senior judge to launch a broad, unprecedented investigation into the rules and standards governing the conduct of British public officials.

The uproar over "sleaze" comes at an especially sensitive time for the prime minister, who is perceived finally to have a firm grasp on his party and enjoys credit for making long strides toward peace in Northern Ireland.

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