Monday, February 04, 2008

Wendy and the procurator fiscal.

Has the former Labour health minister, Andy Kerr, had his chips? A case of small fries to go? In the latest bizarre twist to Labour’s donations scandal, the senior Labour MSP, Andy Kerr, has been reported to the procurator fiscal by the parliamentary Standards Commissioner for failing to register a thousand pounds worth of hospitality from the McDonald's burger chain. He was taken to a football match and scored an own goal. Will McDonald's be issuing A-levels in sleaze as well as management? (That’s enough burger jokes - Ed.).

Ok,how’s about this then. The former Labour cabinet minister, Peter Hain, who resigned two weeks ago for failing to declare campaign donations, has revealed that he employs his 80-year-old mother as a secretary. No, I’m not making this up. Such is the bizarre world of politics right now. It’s becoming such a farce that it is hard to know what to take seriously any more.

Take Wendy Alexander. When I learned on Saturday that she too had been reported to the procurator fiscal for failing to declare her campaign donations on the MSP’s register my immediate reaction was that the game was finally up for the Scottish Labour leader. Surely she couldn’t survive this. It’s widely accepted now that once a politician has been handed over to the legal authorities, there is only one honourable thing they can do, and that is to resign.

She was already in legal limbo waiting for the Electoral Commission to rule on that illegal donation from the tax-exile businessman, Paul Green. It seems inconceivable now that the commission could not also refer her case also to the Crown Office, since a breach of the law is accepted. That would mean two criminal referrals to the Crown Office in one week! But Wendy has determined to tough it out, and who am I to say that she shouldn’t?

Ms Alexander certainly made a spirited defence of her position yesterday on the BBC’s Politics Show - the best interview I have seen her give since this whole affair started. She was confident, clear, and appeared to be utterly relaxed, despite the desperate position she has been placed in by the Holyrood Standards Commissioner, Dr Jim Dyer. She batted the ball straight back into the commissioner’s court by declaring that she had it in writing from Dr Dyer’s own clerk that she didn’t need to declare the donations in question as gifts on the register of interests.

Make of that what you will. Did the Standards Commissioner make a gratuitous referral to the procurator fiscal? If so, why? He is only supposed to call in the legal authorities if there is prima facia evidence of a criminal offence having been committed - not just a legal technicality. It seems inconceivable that he could have been unaware of the political consequences of such a referral in the present political climate.

Perhaps Wendy Alexander has cause to feel hard done by. The Electoral Commission has been sitting on its hands for fully two months over the Green donation.(Keep up at the back) Whatever you think of Wendy Alexander’s conduct over her campaign fund-raising, this procrastination by the commission has surely been inexcusable - justice delayed is justice denied.

Senior Labour politicians are briefing the press that the Electoral Commission has got its legal knickers in a twist over company law and the definition of the word "donor". Well, if it doesn't know what a donor is, I don't know who can help it out. Perhaps it should just pack up and hand all this over to McDonalds who at least know how to deliver on time. By this ruinous prevarication, the Electoral Commission stands accused of a dereliction of its constitutional duty.

However, this doesn’t help Wendy Alexander one whit. The coincidence of the referral by the Standards Commissioner and the imminent arrival of the Electoral Commission's ruling, is a double whammy of Mike Tyson proportions. If there had been a conspiracy to destroy her leadership, these official bodies couldn’t have done it better.

Labour set up this elaborate machinery of parliamentary scrutiny after the sleaze scandals of the 1990s, but it has become a victim of its own zeal. Wendy Alexander’s leadership has been all but destroyed by petty donations to a leadership election campaign that never happened. How she must wish now that she had just declared all those dodgy “995” donations from her business friends, instead of spinning this web of needless and self-incriminating secrecy. Never has the case for transparency been better made.

Her supporters, like the MSP Jackie Baillie, are insisting that Wendy has done nothing wrong, and that it would be unfair for her to have to give up her job, and her reputation, for petty and inconsequential misdemeanours which were the fault of her incompetent campaign team and bad advice from the parliamentary authorities. They say that it is her duty to stay in post until she clears her name, because to stand down would be an admission of guilt.

Maybe, under different circumstances, this would be a reasonable argument. If the former work and pensions secretary, Peter Hain, had not resigned the moment his case was handed to the legal authorities, she might have had a chance. Perhaps if Gordon Brown had not said of Hain that resignation was "the right and honourable thing to do" Wendy Alexander would have been better able to weather this storm.

But the precedent has been established, and she must be measured by the same rule of parliamentary honour. Remember, Peter Hain has not accepted any guilt either, and insists that he is fighting to clear his name. The charge against him is one of failing to declare donations to his campaign for the Labour deputy leadership - which is identical to the allegations against Wendy Alexander. It is very difficult for her to argue that her circumstances are materially different from those of Peter Hain. He said he simply could not do his job as a cabinet minister while distracted by the legal consequences of the Electoral Commission's actions. Can Wendy Alexander can do her job when she is in the midst of this legal maelstrom?

That’s always assuming she could do the job before, which many in her own party seem to doubt. If Wendy Alexander stays she risks being pilloried by the press which has fallen seriously out of love with her. Given the state of public outrage at parliamentary expenses scandals, it is perhaps incredible that Wendy Alexander is in post at all, given the questions that have been raised about her integrity. One can only conclude that having godfather Gordon Brown on your side confers a unique immunity to the conventional requirements of honourable parliamentary conduct.

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