The Conservative leadership decided early on Monday, shortly after the publication of the cash-for-access allegations involving Sir Malcolm Rifkind, that the former foreign secretary would struggle to remain an MP.
Michael Gove, the chief whip, took charge of a delicate diplomatic operation that could have saved the career of one of the party’s most respected grandees, who first entered parliament in February 1974.
Rifkind, however, did himself no favours and irritated the leadership when he adopted what was described as an overly lawyerly approach in a telephone call with Gove at around 11am on Monday. He insisted he had done nothing wrong and would fight to clear his name, and questioned Gove’s decision to suspend the Tory whip from him on a temporary basis pending an internal disciplinary investigation.
Gove believed Rifkind could survive the inquiry, but some senior Tories hoped the former foreign secretary might take the hint that a three-week timeframe for the investigation would make it very difficult for him to stand again as the Tory candidate in Kensington. The inquiry would not have completed its work until mid March, two weeks before parliament is dissolved for the general election.
The move by the Tory leadership finally came to a conclusion on Tuesday morning. Rifkind announced that he would not contest the election and he would stand down as chairman of parliament’s intelligence and security committee (ISC), which oversees Britain’s intelligence agencies.
Rifkind had hoped to remain as the ISC chair, but Lord Butler of Brockwell, the former cabinet secretary who is the most senior peer on the committee, found what was described as equivocal support for him when he embarked on a ring round of members on Monday.
Rifkind chaired the meeting for a final time, attended by the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, at which the committee completed its report into the privacy and security issues arising from the leaks by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The committee, which will publish its report next month after it has been read by the prime minister, will not have a chairman until the general election.
Speaking after the meeting in Westminster, Rifkind admitted that he had made “errors of judgment” in the cash-for-access scandal. He insisted he had done nothing wrong after the Daily Telegraph and Channel 4’s Dispatches alleged that he and Jack Straw, the former Labour foreign secretary, had offered to use their positions as politicians on behalf of a fictitious Chinese company in return for thousands of pounds.
Rifkind said: “No I don’t think I did anything wrong. I may have made errors of judgment but then we all make errors of judgment. We are all human beings in that sense.”
Tory sources say that Rifkind set in train the events which led to the end of his political career when he appeared on the BBC2 Daily Politics programme just after midday on Monday, an hour after his telephone calls with Gove. He declined to apologise for his behaviour, said he was “absolutely livid” with Channel 4, played down the suspension of the Tory whip and added: “My conscience is entirely clear.”
Rifkind then did himself no favours by saying that he had the right to supplement his MP’s salary of £67,060 because he wanted to “have the standard of living that my professional background would normally entitle me to have”.
The whips found some sympathy for him among his colleagues after his BBC appearance, because he is widely admired for the way in which he cares for his wife who has been in poor health for some years. But there was little political support for Rifkind, who is seen as a loner who spends little time in the Commons chamber after he makes high profile speeches or in the Commons tea room .
One Tory said: “It was a fine balancing act for the whips. They did not want to give the impression that they were dumping all over Malcolm Rifkind. But they took the measure of colleagues and it was pretty quickly clear there was virtually no support though there was some sympathy.”
It is understood that the lack of support for Rifkind was fed back to the former foreign secretary, who was also told by Butler that backing for his continuing chairmanship of the ISC was equivocal.
Kathryn Hudson, the parliamentary standards commissioner, released a statement saying that she would not be able to complete a report into Straw and Rifkind until after the general election. She has still not decided whether to conduct an inquiry after the two former foreign secretaries referred themselves.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010