Monday, January 28, 2008

Yet more dodgy donors

Perhaps they should all just resign in one go so that they can collectively ‘clear their names’. Well, there’s strength in numbers after all, and nothing could be worse than having this endless succession of senior Labour figures paraded across the front pages over dodgy donations. This affair is now completely out of control.

Latest minister caught in the headlamps is the health secretary, Alan Johnson, whose campaign for the deputy leadership accepted three grand from an anonymous donor through a front man, Wasseem Siddiqui, who had no cash and no job. The Sunday Mirror claims that Johnson’s people also admitted failing to declare nine thousand pounds worth of donations.

No, I don’t really understand what was going on here either. Johnson denies any wrongdoing, but so did Peter Hain. The truth is that we are beginning to lose our bearings in the donations affair, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine what actions constitute sleaze and what don’t. The threshold of public infamy keeps falling week by week. Even the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has had to apologise to a court in Edinburgh for failing to declare a £200 bill from the 2005 election campaign.

Of course, they’ve brought it on themselves, not least by passing the very laws Labour politicians have been transgressing with such alacrity. Moreover, Labour seem to be obsessed - to the point of self-destruction - with introducing mechanisms to hide the identities of donors to their campaigns. The dodgy donations started with the party general secretary, Peter Watt, conniving with North of England property developer David Abrahams to set up a network of proxy donors to funnel funds to Labour in defiance of the rules.

Some five thousand in proxy cash went to Harriet Harman, the Labour deputy leader. She is now reportedly going to be questioned by police, which will spin this scandal out even further. The police have hardly started investigating Peter Hain, who resigned last week over undeclared donations. And Wendy Alexander is nervously awaiting her fate this week as the Electoral Commission grinds towards some kind of verdict on her illegal donation from the tax-exile businessman Paul Green.

In recent times a degree of sympathy had been building up for Wendy Alexander for being forced to wait in suspended animation for t wo months while the Electoral Commission tried to to get its act together. All over £950. However, Wendy’s people did her no favours over the weekend by declaring that she would not resign even if her case was handed on to the police. The Labour MSP Jackie Baillie said that, unlike Peter Hain, Ms Alexander would “stay on and fight for her reputation”. I don’t know what planet she’s living on,. but it’s not this one.

The Scottish Secretary, Des Browne, then blundered onto the scene by announcing on yesterday’s Politics Show, that there would be no more Labour resignations in the donations row. How does he know? This was a crazy statement to make. For a start it makes it look as if Labour is above the law. It also lends credence to the rumour that there had been a kind of ‘plea bargaining’ deal struck with the Electoral Commission under which Wendy Alexander and Harriet Harman would be allowed to walk provided that Peter Hain took the rap.

If the Electoral Commission did enter into such a deal it would be beyond its authority, and would constitute a real scandal. By what right does it usurp the justice system? And who is Des Browne to decide when politicians resign? He has undermined the credibility of the Electoral Commission and has prepared the ground for an assault on Wendy’s integrity almost whatever the commission says this week.

The most likely outcome is that the police will not be called in, and that Wendy Alexander will receive a rap on the knuckles from the Commission for letting her campaign break the rules. It will be a kind of ‘not proven’ verdict: ‘not guilty, but don’t do it again’. It appears that Labour have managed to persuade the Commission that if they don’t draw a line somewhere, then politicians will be paralysed with fear and will spend all their time checking and rechecking their accounts instead of running the country.

But the trouble is that any perceived attempt to cover up or excuse wrongdoing, however minor, is in this climate going to do damage to the government. Whatever happened to “zero tolerance?”, people will say. Where is Gordon’s “moral compass” now? Public cynicism about politics will go off the scale.

Indeed, the dodgy donations affair is becoming eerily reminiscent of the ‘back to basics’ scandal that destroyed the Tories in the Nineties. Again, it began with a moral pronouncement: the call by the Prime Minister, John Major, in 1993 for a return to family values and moral certainties. As we all know, back to basics became ‘back to my place’, as a succession of senior Tory figures ended up resigning after being found sleeping in the wrong beds.

It was of course absurd that ministers were losing their jobs because they had been unfaithful to their wives - what had that to do with running the country? - but they had set themselves up by posing as moral guardians, and as such made themselves targets. Brown’s “moral compass” may have done the same for him. It now seems to be open season on Labour politicians; no one is safe.

And. yes, I have some sympathy with Labour when they insist that the Tories are just as bad on dodgy donations. Last year, David Cameron, the Conservative leader, admitted receiving more than £7,000 in invalid donations to his Witney constituency party, and the shadow chancellor George Osborne has been caught not declaring hundreds of thousands in donations on the register of members interests. The two top Tory donors - Lords Ashcroft and Laidlaw - don’t even appear to pay tax in this country, and live in Belize and Monaco respectively. How can they expect to be able to donate millions to a political party if they don’t even live here?

And what about Alex Salmond? cry Labour, as the FM is found intervening, for the second time, in a planning issue - this time on behalf of an SNP donor in Aviemore. But because of their own endless scandal, Labour are in no state to hold Salmond to account for this, or the Trump golf-course affair. The donations conflagration is consuming the Labour party from top to bottom and rendering it hopeless as a government in Westminster or as an opposition in Holyrood. And until the fire burns itself out, nothing is going to work, and Gordon Brown is going to be toast.

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