The Westminster set will never be a match for the Mayfair set

With its worship of the money-makers, Blairite New Labour is vulnerable to the influence of business
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THE YOUNG man from Conservative Central Office shifted uneasily to and fro. "What has he actually done wrong?" he asked edgily. "Show me exactly which law he has broken." He sounded like someone reluctantly obliged by family loyalty to defend a black sheep. His voice was high with the strain of it all.

Tories are horribly embarrassed by the revelations surrounding their treasurer, Michael Ashcroft. Being forced to affect a supportive tone adds insult to injury. It is blindingly obvious that they rue the day Mr Hague ever caved in and gave Mr Ashcroft the official role he coveted, and that their leader has made an error in devoting his energy to defending him.

Mr Ashcroft has emerged as a man of many parts, not all of which are entirely congruent with each other. Each day brings new revelations on the borderline of the disreputable and the absurd.

We now discover that he has perfected an advanced Poo-Bah technique, funding the governing left-wing party in Belize while occupying senior office in Her Majesty's Opposition back in Blighty. He holds the post of Belizean ambassador to the UN. This delegation recently voted with China and Iraq against the UK, EU and US - and the Conservative Party - on a key plank of nuclear policy. Last week I compared him to a Graham Greene figure. My apologies for selling you short. Not even on the wilder shores of Greeneland do we encounter a figure quite as bafflingly dubious as Mr Ashcroft.

The saga of the extraordinary treasurer marks another chapter in the post-war tale of the decline of political power and its capitulation to the exaggerated self-confidence and desire for influence of businessmen. The BBC's series The Mayfair Set, whose first episode was aired last night, is a salutary account of the rise of their power at the expense of confidence in the political elites since the war. Watch the upcoming programmes for a ghastly parade of asset-strippers, merger men and merchants of death peddling their theories of how Britain could be made Great again. Great is the propensity of businessmen to seduce politicians with solutions that sound irresistible, only to turn to dust in the hands of the recipient.

In the Fifties, Jim Slater and Peter Walker managed to convince the Tory patricians that their ruthless brand of company-restructuring (ie, buy the company and sell off its constituent parts) could be miraculously adapted to modernise a moribund British economy. It succeeded only in diminishing the industrial base. Later, Harold Wilson's government was to appoint the Leyland Motor Holdings chief, Donald Stokes, to advise on defence sales. "It's no good politicians doing or thinking anything, because they've no power left at all," Stokes explained. "We've no power of armies or airforces; the only power we have left is economic power and we must deploy it to get the best return."

The result was arms sales to Nigeria that were used against the Biafrans during the vicious civil war in the late Sixties, and Britain's continuing pivotal role in arms-dealing, which undermines all claims to an "ethical dimension" in foreign policy.

The idea that countries are no more and no less than the sum of their entrepreneurial success signals the road to the corporate state. New Labour, with its culture of admiration for the money-makers, is particularly vulnerable to such an undertow. Tony Blair's message, "What's right is what works", may be a welcome retreat from ideology. But it bequeaths huge power to those groups of people the Government trusts to tell it what "working" means.

Gore Vidal's observation on American politics - "The business party here has two wings: Democrat and Republican" - is on its way to becoming true in Britain.

Wal-Mart has been invited in, we know not yet on exactly what terms, to build its vast hypermarkets at the very time that small town communities are fighting to save their high streets from the devastation of out-of- town shopping. The Government welcomed Monsanto with open arms and appointed a science minister, David Sainsbury, with links to the genetically modified food industry. The only bar to the People's Party's intention to promote GM foods is that the people are unconvinced that the risks have been assessed.

The public has become a lot more suspicious of the unadulterated sway of commercial interests. We longer agree to eat up its modified greens just because the Prime Minister tells us they are safe. Politicians, on the other hand, maintain - or affect to maintain - a state of innocence about their relationship with the wealth-creators. Stephen Byers, the Trade and Industry Secretary, is making great play of declaring war on boardroom salaries. All power to him, although we shall see today what his proposals are really made of. But will he tackle, say, the car-pricing cartels, whose grip on the market works against every British motorist?

Blairite New Labour was right to drop the foolish hostility to business that had seeped out of the far left and into mainstream party culture in the Seventies and Eighties. But it is slow to develop a calmer scrutiny of commercial special pleading, and it needs to do so more consistently than in the odd token attack on fat cats.

Businessmen always get more out of politicians than vice versa, which is how they got rich in the first place. The rise of the commercial investor as a major funder of parties evades satisfactory accountability, a development admitted in the Neill Report on party funding, which concluded that the determined or wily would always find a way round restrictions. Mr Hague, remember, pledged to banish "foreign donations" from the Conservative Party, only to replace them, in Mr Ashcroft's case, with donations from someone of dual nationality living in a distant tax haven and possessing a diplomatic passport. The rich are not only different from us because they have more money. They are different because they can be in several places at the same time.

Mr Blair was genuinely horrified when it was suggested that Bernie Ecclestone had bought a reprieve from the tobacco advertising ban in return for decanting pounds 1m into Labour's coffers. But it knocked the first dent in his reputation as a politician distinct from the rest of the scurvy clan.

However insistently politicians claim that their decisions are unaffected by their links to wealthy business donors, the citizens of a lively democracy will disbelieve them. Mr Hague's attempts to brush off the ethical problems of l'affaire Ashcroft do not show anywhere near enough respect for that role. We shall never stop parties from taking the magnates' money, but we can demand the fullest possible disclosure of where it came from. It is the sort of issue that an active, alert Opposition should make its mark by pursuing vigorously, always assuming that it has resolved its little local difficulty first.