Major subpoenaed to give evidence in libel case

 

THE British Prime Minister, Mr John Major, is being subpoenaed to give evidence in a libel action brought by a former Conservative minister against the Guardian, it emerged last night.

Subpoenas have also gone to the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Michael Heseltine, and the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, said a Guardian spokesman.

The three are being summoned by the newspaper's lawyers to appear in a libel case brought against the Guardian by a former Trade Minister, Mr Neil Hamilton.

The case is due to start at the High Court on October 1st, a week before the Tory party conference in Bournemouth, and is scheduled to last for a month.

The trial had been expected to take place next year.

It is understood that the newspaper's lawyers have stressed to Mr Major that the desire to bring the hearing forward to October and a potential clash with the Tory's last annual conference before the election - was Mr Hamilton's, not the Guardian's.

Mr Hamilton is fighting to clear his name over accusations he asked Commons questions in return for cash from Harrods owner Mr Mohammed al-Fayed.

Mr Hamilton quit as trade minister in 1994 over the allegations.

The Sun yesterday reported that Mr Major, Mr Heseltine and Sir Robin were to be summoned, possibly wrecking the conference.

Mr Major, campaigning in Lancashire, said it was all news to him: "I don't anticipate I am going to miss any of the conference, but I don't know. The first I heard about it was this morning."

A Downing Street spokesman said last night: "Arrangements have been made in respect of the Prime Minister that any subpoenas would be delivered to the treasury solicitor."

It is understood the treasury solicitor is already seeking instructions in connection with Mr Heseltine and Sir Robin.

While there does seem to be some doubt over whether courts can require MPs to give evidence in court while the Commons is sitting, it is usual for them to seek to arrange with subpoenaed witnesses a time when it is convenient for them to appear.

This means that Mr Major and Mr Heseltine would not necessarily have to break off from the conference to attend the court.

Mr Hamilton's case was originally due to go to court in the summer of last year but was delayed because of difficulties relating to parliamentary privilege.

Mr Hamilton argued that the rules on parliamentary privilege prevented him from giving evidence on statements he had made in the Commons. He said he needed to waive his privilege to give evidence, claiming this was the only way he could clear his name and resurrect his career.

Mr Hamilton took his campaign to parliament and MPs voted by 264 to 201 to waive parliamentary privilege in certain circumstances.

This allowed Mr Hamilton to pursue his libel ease against the Guardian.