Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Curse of the North

Column published in the Newcastle Journal, Sat 1 December.


They say troubles come along in threes, and so, for Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Labour, it has proved – each one of them made and manufactured in the party’s North-East heartland.

First, there was Northern Rock, the first run on a British bank for more than 100 years. Then “Discgate,” or how a breach of adminstrative procedure at a government office in Washington caused the personal details of 25m people to go missing.

Now, potentially most damaging of all, a new police inquiry into Labour’s finances after a Newcastle businessman used middle-men and women to channel more than £600,000 into party funds.

Is it any wonder that some people at Westminster are starting to talk about the “Curse of the North?”

A conspiracy theorist might be sorely tempted to try to see links between the three, to point to some common thread of corruption or incompetence.

This part of the world has, after all, had a long history of Labour scandals, dating back to the days of T Dan Smith and Andy Cunningham in the 1970s.

There is, however, no such link. The confluence of these three North-East stories at the top of the national political agenda at the same time is no more than a bizarre coincidence.

But if it’s a somewhat happy coincidence for the region’s journalists and commentators, it is a very unhappy one for Mr Brown, who now finds not only his competence but his integrity called into question.

As far as both Northern Rock and Discgate are concerned, the focus on the Prime Minister’s role is only fair. Both happened on his watch, and as such his government has to take ultimately responsibility for them.

The David Abrahams affair is a slightly different matter, though. The vast majority of his dodgy donations were made during Tony Blair’s leadership, and it is only because it has taken until now for the scam to come to light that Mr Brown finds himself in the firing line.

Mr Brown has also acted swiftly to condemn the practices in question and to return the donations, although he should have gone further and called in the police himself before the Electoral Commission did so.

But even though the Prime Minister is almost certainly innocent of any personal involvement in the affair, it was inevitable in the current highly-charged political situation that the opposition parties would make him their main target.

Once again, the case of John Major provides an apt analogy. Amid all the Tory sleaaze of the mid-1990s, there was never the slightest evidence to suggest that he personally was anything other than a man of the highest integrity.

But that did not stop Labour targeting him, and eventually the electorate got the message.

Sir John remains sore to this day about the way he was treated, and the fact that New Labour’s aspirations to be “whiter than white” turned out to be so preposterously misplaced.

But the truth is that all is fair in love, war, and politics, and just as it fell to Mr Major to deal with a situation of others’ making, so it now falls to Mr Brown.

Of course, it didn’t help his cause that his deputy, Harriet Harman, was unwise enough to accept a donation of £5,000 for her deputy leadership campaign without checking where it had come from.

Mr Brown demonstrated his anger by effectively hanging her out to dry at his Prime Ministerial press conference on Tuesday, but her camp has now responded by claiming a Brown campaign organiser, Chris Leslie, told them to seek the donation.

Ms Harman is playing a very dangerous game here. If she thinks this crisis is primarily about ensuring her own personal political survival, she is very sadly mistaken.

In fact it’s no longer about her or Mr Brown. It is actually about the very survival of the Labour government.

As it is, it seems certain that there is more of the story to come out. To begin with, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair has asked Durham Police to investigate the decision to allow Mr Abrahams to build a business park near the A1 south of the city.

This plan had been held up by Department of Transport objections until October 2006, when it was suddenly given the go-ahead.

The Department has denied that there is any link between its decision to allow the development and Mr Abrahams’ donations to the Labour Party, but in the current climate, such denials cannot necessarily be taken at face value.

There may be absolutely nothing to it. But if there is such a link, this is where the real scandal of the Abrahams affair may lie.

Secondly, Liberal Democrat candidate Greg Stone has called for an investigation into the Sedgefield by-election, and specifically whether any money was chanelled from Mr Abrahams into Labour’s campaign.

If it was, and this resulted in breaches of electoral law, it is more than possible that the Electoral Commission could order the contest to be rerun, in circumstances that could prove impossible for Labour to hold onto the seat.

Finally, there have been suggestions that Mr Abrahams himself is a front-man for a mysterious overseas donor.

All in all, it is enough to make Labour long for the days when it was solely dependent on the trade unions for its funding.

Whatever comes next, though, one thing that is already clear is that Mr Brown’s ambitions to restore trust in British politics after the deceptions of the Blair years now lie in ruins.

It is a very sad conclusion for those of us who hoped Mr Brown could offer a fresh start, but it is going to be hard if not impossible for him to do that now.

Voters are starting to conclude that the job of restoring trust in British politics will require not just a change of leadership, but a change of government.

Increasingly, that seems to be the end to which all roads are now beginning to point.

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