I always thought that the police investigation into the cash for honours affair, however much fun it might have been to see Tony Blair become the subject of a police investigation, missed the real point. Giving honours to people who have served their party in some way or another, including by donating money, has long been a feature of political life. It is something that Labour and Tory alike have long seen as ‘business as usual’.
The real scandal, to me, was that a governing party which pledged to bring transparency to political funding, and passed laws requiring donations to be declared, then proceeded to use a loophole in its own legislation by asking potential donors to turn their gifts into loans so that they would not need to be declared.
It was not illegal, but it was clearly in direct contradiction of the spirit behind the legislation which they had enacted. I can see how some would assume that that subterfuge must be hiding some bigger sin, which I suppose is how it developed into a suggestion that honours were being sold, but I suspect that it really was as simple as a desire to hide the sources of party funds; no more, no less.
The danger for Labour in the Abrahams affair is that this starts to look like a pattern. Here again, the objective seems to have been to disguise the real source of funds. The key difference is that, in this case, as Brown himself has admitted, there is a clear breach of the law rather than mere use of a loophole, but the underlying cause is exactly the same – an attempt to conceal the source of the funding.
In the case of the ‘loans’, it was clearly the Labour Party itself which instigated the concealment. At this stage in the Abrahams case, it is unclear whether it was the party or the donor or both who wanted to conceal the source – I guess that will be pretty central to the police investigation. It is already clear however that whoever instigated the proposal, the details were known by both the donor and by senior people in the party – and all of them should have known what the law says on the matter.
The surprising thing is how quickly the matter has snowballed to involve donations to internal party campaigns, and the impact on Brown himself. I don’t think it threatens his survival – yet – although things look pretty bleak for Harriet Harman’s prospects. I find myself wondering whether he has really been told everything, or whether there are some misguided people who think that they are protecting him by not giving him the whole picture.
If he wants to come out of this with minimum damage, I think he needs to deliberately over-react at this stage, before things get any worse. Anyone who personally knew about or was involved in an attempt to conceal the source of funds needs to go. And Brown needs to satisfy himself, quietly but definitely, that there are no other little dodges being used to conceal the sources of party funding.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that the other parties are entirely clean on the issue of funding either, and there’s more than a little hypocrisy in the way that the Tories in particular (but not uniquely) have jumped on this one. But trying to respond to this situation by attacking others will only make matters worse, and increase the overall level of cynicism about politicians.