I remember when Labour started their nasty sleaze camapign in the 1990s against the Tories I thought they were fashioning a boomerang. It was over the top, and unnecessary – the Conservative party was going to lose the election anyway. It was bound to damage politics as a whole and to make the life of a future Labour government more difficult.
I also remember that the BBC was willing to glorify little known Tory backbenchers who had made a mistake or were the subject of allegations as "Top Tories" caught in a "sleaze row" or just in "sleaze". Experts were wheeled out to tell us it was a government in crisis. Tory interviewees were subject to endless interruption and innuendo, as the party was confused with the individuals.
How different it is today from the BBC. Labour’s Chief Whip Mr Hoon is allowed to tour BBC studios to make statements about how it will all be sorted out in an enquiry, and how the government is moving quickly to show it is a model of probity, without interruption or innuendo. The BBC does not line up experts to comment on the seriousness of the possible criminal charges, or the seniority of the Labour figures involved. Nick Robinson is an honourable exception, as he is doggedly trying to get to the truth.
When Labour came to office they changed the climate of journalists towards sleaze overnight. The fiat went out that in future husbands cheating wives – or wives cheating husbands – was not sleaze, but a personal matter that the BBC should ignore. Several of the cases of so-called sleaze for the Tories were stories of broken relationships. Under the new regime a succession of broken marriages and affairs received their lurid coverage in certain newspapers, but were not given the sleaze treatment by the BBC in genuflection to Labour’s new settlement.
The Ecclestone affair alerted Labour to the dangers of funding sources to their own reputations. It and other crises led them into legislation to tighten up the regime for reporting sources of funds. They introduced the double jeopardy system for MPs receiving money to help with their political campaigns – the need to report it to the Register of Members’ Interests in the House and in certain cases to the newly created Electoral Commisssion as well. Labour wanted belt and braces, and submitted MPs to their form filling compliance culture.
It is not without irony that it should be this very form filling culture that they have fallen foul of in these latest revelations. It was a failure to register the true donor of large sums of money that led the Prime Minsiter to admit that the party he leads had broken the rules. The first defence mounted was that the General Secretary – Labour’s own senior Compliance Officer – did not know the rules and was resigning because he and he alone had made the mistake. Many in the press doubt that only the General Secretary knew of the arrangement. The testimony of Hilary Benn, Margaret Jay and Harriet Harman – and their respective assistants – will be important in working out just how many people did know.
Today the position has been made worse for the PM by the revelation that his own fund raiser, Jon Mendelsohn, wrote a letter to the donor Mr Abrahams implying he too knew he was an important donor. This takes the whole issue that much closer to the doors of the PM’s study.
We should not lose sight of the reticence of the Communities Secretary Hazel Blears yesterday to answer questions how the decision was made to grant planning permission to Mr Abrahams. If the PM knew on Saturday of the problems, Hazel Blears and her department had some time to find answers to the obvious questions MPs and journalists were going to ask, but so far has not done so. The sooner she can give us an authoritative statement on how this was handled the better as far as the government is concerned.
There is also the question surrounding the gift of monies to intermediaries to pass it on to the Labour party. How have these transactions been accounted for? Are they all tax free transactions? Were there agreements in writing given the size of some of the sums involved? Why did the intermediaries agree to do it, as from their point of view it could prove to be all hassle and no reward if they received nothing in return for their deed?