Monday, December 18, 2006

Podcast - Blair's day of shame

Script of my Week in Politics Podcast, Episode 48, which went live today.


Several weeks ago, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Lord Stevens let it be known that he intended to publish his report into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, on December 14.

Political journalists who for weeks had been waiting to be told when the police would be interviewing Tony Blair over the cash-for-honours affairs immediately smelt a rat.

As one senior lobby hack wrote yesterday: “We all guessed weeks ago that this would be the perfect day for Mr Blair to invite the police in – the day the world would be transfixed by the [Diana] report.”

But it was more in the nature of bar-room gossip rather than informed speculation.
Somehow I doubt that, in their hearts, they really believed even Downing Street would be that brazened.

Well, to paraphrase a famous old saying, it seems no one ever went broke over-estimating the sheer bare-faced cheek of our present Prime Minister.

The police interview with was just the half of it. Thursday also saw the Government announce the closure of 2,500 post offices and call off a long-running Serious Fraud Office inquiry into arms deals with Saudi Arabia.

It also gave the go-ahead to a new round of airport expansion which though it will be welcomed by business leaders has dismayed environmentalists concerned at the impact on global warming.

“It looks like it’s take out the trash day today,” one Labour insider was quoted as saying.

Of course, it could all have been a coincidence. The Christmas Parliamentary recess began yesterday and, in my experience, there is always a godalmighty rush to get out announcements before MPs head off on their hols.

But Scotland Yard has moreorless confirmed that the timing of the cash-for-honours interview was determined not by them, but by Number 10.

This leads one to the inevitable conclusion that Downing Street did indeed request that the interview should take place on this particular day, with the Diana report in mind.

Should we be surprised? Given this Government’s well-deserved and hard-earned reputation for burying bad news, probably not.

Equally unsurprising was the role of the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman in denying that the interview had taken place at the very time Mr Plod was sitting down for his two-hour chat with Mr Blair.

When asked at Thursday’s 11am lobby briefing whether the PM would be interviewed by police today, Tom Kelly replied that “there has been no change in the position.”

This was later explained away by Kelly saying he had asked Mr Blair not to tell him he was being interviewed until it was all over so that he could not be accused of misleading people.

To which one can only say: how very, very convenient.

But Thursday’s rubbish disposal exercise was by no means the only breathtaking manoeuvre carried out by the Prime Minister in relation to the cash-for-honours affair this week.

A few days earlier, a plan came to light for Mr Blair to actually turn this most damaging of political scandals to his own advantage, by using it as an excuse to scrap Labour’s links with the unions.

Ten years ago in 1996, a young, up-and-coming MP by the name of Stephen Byers held a dinner with some sympathetic journalists on the eve of that year’s Labour Party Conference.

His revelation that the party was considering severing the union link was not actually a serious proposal, the aim being simply to position Mr Blair in the public’s mind as Not Jim Callaghan.

But a decade on, the idea has taken on a different context. It is now being seen as a way for Mr Blair to salvage some sort of “legacy” from the whole cash-for-honours fiasco.

Sir Hayden Philips, a retired civil servant who was asked to look at the party funding issue in the wake of the honours probe, has proposed a £50,000 cap on all party donations.

This will, of course, effectively end the big donations to Labour by trade unions which collect the “political levy” on behalf of their hundreds of thousands of individual members.

But such is the sheer scale of the opposition this has already aroused within the party that even some of the Prime Minister’s most loyal supporters have been moved to speak out against the idea.

Former Labour National Executive Committee chairman Sir Jeremy Beecham has always been one of Mr Blair’s most assiduous defenders.

But Sir Jeremy’s loyalty was finally provoked beyond endurance this week, as he publicly denounced the union funding proposals as “outrageous.”

In a similar vein, Durham MP Kevan Jones implied Mr Blair had finally taken leave of his senses saying: “The lights are on in Downing Street but no-one’s at home.”

To see these two old North-East rivals uniting against the Philips proposals ought to be sufficient warning to Mr Blair that the idea should be pursued thus far and no further.

Back in their days on Newcastle City Council days, the Beecham-Jones feud was so poisonous it permeated the entire city Labour Group and beyond, but that is not really the point.

The point is rather that, in party terms, Jones and Beecham are right-wingers, people who, far from being classed as “usual suspects,” would normally be viewed as Mr Blair’s natural supporters.

As it is, there are increasingly fewer of those to be found, as the man who promised to clean up politics continues to sully it beyond anything achieved by John Major’s administration.

And until the day he finally goes, his capacity to damage both the Labour Party and the reputation of British politics in general will remain unhindered.

1 comment:

BlairSupporter said...

So, your criticism is that ANY OTHER PM under police questioning would have chosen, given that he had that choice, to be interviewed on a quiet day? Really? This is just such rubbish. WHO, in their right mind would choose to have ALL the baying press pack outside No. 10 all day if they could choose a day when half the press were somewhere else? It's common sense and human nature as well as good politics to try to minimise the damage to himself and the party and you and I would have done the same.

It's not as though it'd be kept secret by the fact that it was a busy news day. We all know about it.

I am still receiving google notifications of his questioning and many of the links lead back to the blogs of people like yourself who want to hang the man before he's been tried or even arrested. They also lead back to the Telgraph and other right wing dailies. Good company you are choosing to keep these days.

I am amazed at how much vitriol Blair is attracting from people within the Labour party or people who feel the party somehow belongs to them. Do you ever wonder how Blair got you those last three wins? It was something to do with the floating voter, the usual 20 - 30% who often decide at the last minute.

If you really think you can win the next election without Blair you are more naive than even I thought possible. OK, it doesn't look as though you could win it with him either at the moment with his judgement over Iraq questioned and his name being so relentlessly blackened. But in my book he is guilty of nothing and is only being attacked by those with a different agenda for the party, viz going back to the historic past or disengaging from Iraq.

Yes, he might have been moving the party to the right - but that's why you won! There are no voters going anywhere to the left of Labour.

The more I read on blogs like this the more apparent it is that Blair is 'way ahead of you all in political maturity. You are running full steam ahead just to stay alongside him.

He obviously has not persuaded enough of you that the Old Labour party must modernise. In that he has failed. A pity. I was hoping for a futher ten years without the conservatives.

And as to the business of the Unions' funding and the £50,000 limit - are you saying that Blair expected or knew about or somehow instigated this recommendation and then sought to use it to further his own ends?

Well, if so, good for him. You do not NEED to BREAK the union ties, but you DO need to make the party much less dependent on unions for funding. If you do not address this issue soon you will rue the day when you didn't listen to the man who is a politician to his fingertips.

You're lucky he still cares! I wouldn't! As someone who is "too good for the room", Blair will be well rid of Old Labour, although it's evident it will break his heart more than it'll break any of yours.

Just now and again you should give politicians the credit of wanting to do something because they believe in it and not because of their own selfish ambitions.

Anyway, enough! I still believe in Blair and yet I have never voted for Labour. Wish I had now, but without Blair, no chance. And the more of this nonsense I read the more I admire him.

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