The chairman of the Commons health committee is to investigate allegations that Kenneth Clarke gave false evidence to parliament about the activities of his company British American Tobacco.
Kevin Barron, Labour chairman of the health committee, said he would consult with David Hinchliffe, who was chairman in February 2000 when the Conservative leadership contender testified, denying claims that BAT was involved in international cigarette smuggling. Mr Barron said: "I shall be asking to study the record of the evidence Mr Clarke gave at the time, to see if there are any contradictions."
The Guardian disclosed yesterday that a letter written by BAT's lawyers admitted that certain allegations of BAT's involvement in smuggling were true. But five days after the letter was written, Mr Clarke, who is deputy chairman of BAT, denied the charges to MPs, describing them as "unfounded" and "nonsense".
Yesterday at Blackpool he sought to brush off the allegations. Addressing a packed lunchtime meeting, Mr Clarke likened himself to the man in the Hamlet cigar commercial. "When I am accused of heinous crimes I just light up a cigar ... It does save me from stress. I do not suffer from stress."
Deborah Arnott, director of the anti-smoking group Ash, said: "It's not just that he may have done these things, but he just doesn't understand the seriousness of them. It's a sign of his poor judgment as a politician." She said a man who was "in the pocket of the tobacco industry" ought never to become prime minister.
The lawyers' letter, written by the City firm Lovells, warned that BAT's directors faced "potential problems" over the company's internal documents, and needed to be careful how they testified. The letter warned in a "cautionary note" that the evidence was that BAT had deliberately used smuggling channels in Latin America "with a view to securing market share". The key sentences said: "DNP [duty not paid] ... does connote smuggled goods ... The evidence is it [BAT] used DNP channels to grow its market share."
The company stands accused of shipping millions of cigarettes to BAT's agents on Aruba, a South American island, with a view to them being profitably smuggled into neighbouring Colombia. Because BAT did not physically carry out the smuggling, it says it did not break any laws, and a subsequent DTI inquiry ended inconclusively, with its findings kept secret.
Mr Clarke claimed yesterday that the Guardian's selective quotations from the Lovells briefing document did not give the full picture. " There is a small extract from Lovells' opinion and a small quote from my testimony to the select committee which went on for hours and hours. They do not match. The Guardian has raised these allegations regularly for the past six years. Thanks to Stephen Byers [then trade and industry secretary] the DTI investigated it and found nothing.
"The memo's allegations largely concern what happened 10 years ago before I joined the company."
He added: "I am quite prepared to defend what BAT was doing in the early 90s in Latin America. On the basis of what I've been told they were in a difficult situation providing cigarettes legitimately to wholesalers, which got into the smuggling chain, as did other producers."
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