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POLITICS: Major angry at '90s Labour sleaze slurs.

Byline: By Gavin Cordon

Former Prime Minister Sir John Major hit out yesterday at the way Labour used accusations of "sleaze" to blacken the reputation of the Conservative Government in the 1990s.

Sir John compared the tactics adopted by Tony Blair, then leader of the Opposition, to the McCarthyite witchhunts against communist sympathisers in the United States in the 1950s.

While he acknowledged that there had been individuals in the Tory Party who "misbehaved" in the 1990s, he said that under Labour the problems of sleaze had become "systemic".

"What they did at the time was absolutely unscrupulous," Sir John told BBC1's The Andrew Marr Show.

"Lots of people misbehaved in the 1980s and 1990s, but they were all individuals. It was never institutional. It was never related specifically to the Conservative Party or to the Conservative government.

"What happened in the 1990s, there was a deliberate attempt to portray the Conservative Party as an institution - it was almost McCarthyite frankly - as though it were sleazy and it wasn't.

"The distinction is that sleaze has seemed to be systemic since 1997."

Sir John has spoken little about his feelings about what happened in the 1997 General Election since losing power, but his comments suggest he continues to nurse a deep sense of grievance.

The Conservatives were hit particularly hard by the so-called "cash-for-questions" scandal, with the disclosure that Harrods store boss Mohammed al Fayed had been paying Tory MPs to ask questions for him in Parliament.

Mr Blair has recently expressed his regret at the way Labour used the accusations of sleaze against the Tories, acknowledging that all political parties were basically honest.

However Sir John said that Labour in power had been "institutionally careless in the grand manner".

There was, he said, a "clear pattern" linking the row over Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone's pounds 1 million donation to Labour in 1997 to the current "proxy donors" scandal involving property developer David Abrahams - with "serial offences" in between.

"I think if they were to say today 'whiter than white' or 'purer than pure', people would just laugh," Sir John said, referring to Mr Blair's famous pledge after Labour was elected.

"They have had a huge majority and they have been careless. I do think it was institutionally careless in the grand manner."

He accepted that Labour's tactics had not cost the Conservatives victory in 1997, but he said that they had magnified the scale of the defeat.

"Frankly, we had been there so long, if the leader of the Conservative Party had been the Archangel Gabriel and the Cabinet had been a choir of angels, I think after 18 years we would have lost," he said.

"I think that what their pretty unscrupulous use of facts did was to magnify the defeat, to turn a defeat that was always likely into a much bigger defeat."

Sir John also launched an attack on Gordon Brown's record as Chancellor.

He said that the losses suffered as the result of Mr Brown's decision to sell off Britain's gold reserves now outstripped those sustained under the Tories on Black Wednesday when Britain was forced out of the European exchange rate mechanism.

He warned that the country could now be facing even bigger losses as a result of the Northern Rock collapse, which could be traced back directly to the changes to the system of financial regulation brought in by Mr Brown.

"We don't yet know what the cost of Northern Rock to the economy will be, but it is quite likely that it will exceed the cost to the taxpayer of either Black Wednesday or of the sale of gold," he said.

"That runs specifically from changes introduced to the system by the then Chancellor in 1997."


Sir John compared the tactics adopted by Tony Blair to the McCarthyite witchhunts
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Dec 17, 2007
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