Alan Watkins: Mr Blair does not need to have put the money under the mattress to be guilty

The conspiracy law is wide- ranging, perhaps too much so
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The Independent Online

Though I have been in this business for some years now, I have never understood precisely how politicians or other representatives of the parties find themselves in front of the television cameras. Are they invited to appear? Or are they nominated by their respective parties? Or, as I suspect, a bit of both?

At all events, Wednesday evening was clearly David Blunkett Benefit Night. Mr Blunkett was guided round the studios as if he remained the sole surviving custodian of the reputations of Lord Levy and Mr Tony Blair. It was as if his colleagues who, unlike Mr Blunkett, remained in office had discovered pressing prior engagements in remote parts of the land, far from the intrusive cameras. Altogether, it was as if the late "Lucky" Luciano had agreed to provide a moving testimonial to the personal virtues of the equally late Al Capone.

Some months ago, Deputy Assistant Commissioner John Yates ("Yates of the Yard") set up the inquiry into possible breaches of the criminal law, for I dislike the police-court word "alleged", however useful it may be in newspaper practice. These possible breaches of the law involved an Act of 1925 and another one of 2000.

The first of these was concerned with the sale of honours, conducted most notoriously by David Lloyd George when he was prime minister from 1916 to 1922 and later, and by his man-of-business Maundy Gregory. It is only fair to the wily Welsh prime minister to acknowledge that others have engaged in the same trade, before and since. The principal difference was that, in his later period, the money went to the Lloyd George political fund, which was intended to be kept separate from the Liberal Party's finances.

The second measure, only six years old, was the handiwork of Mr Jack Straw as Home Secretary. Most of the newspaper discussion of the time was about referendums and the constraints which could be imposed on the government and on other interested parties. For political subjects, as we know, go in and out of fashion; and Mr Blair's first term was obsessed by the European referendum.

But Mr Straw's measure of 2000 gathered together numerous topics of the 1990s. Some of them came from the holier-than-thou posturing of Mr Blair in opposition from 1994 to 1997; other topics, derived from various committees, commissions and what-have-you, originated with Sir John Major and his thoroughly decent endeavours to clean up the Westminster streets before the 1997 massacre.

When Commander Yates and his lads got to work, there was general incredulity among the political classes, certainly among those close to No 10, irrespective of whether they worked in the building all the time or attended it to listen to briefings. Assorted Mr Worldly Wisemen assured us that the constabulary were merely going through the motions; that certain formalities had to be observed for the sake of form. The unpleasantness would quickly be forgotten. Well, I told them, but they wouldn't listen.

Mr Blair's instinct, when he is in trouble - when he first found himself in trouble over cash or loans for peerages - is to widen the terms of reference or, indeed, to come up with another remit altogether. So some denizen of the deep will emit a cloud of black ink, either to protect itself from attack or itself to assault its enemies. Accordingly there are two further inquiries on the go, in addition to the intrepid commander's investigations.

One of them is under the chairmanship of Mr Tony Wright of the Public Administration Committee. He is quite intelligent as Labour MPs go these days, but he tends to be a bit too pleased with himself, though that is a personal impression on my part.

Committees have become a little more independent in the last decade but still tend to do the Government's bidding. The various committees sitting before, during and immediately after the Iraq War produced a farrago of evasions and downright lies, as was perfectly evident to me at the time.

Likewise, any committee controlled by the governing party will excuse or justify most breaches of the law. This happened with the Marconi affair, with the case of Reginald Maudling, with other episodes too numerous to list conveniently. And disputed elections were taken away from the House of Commons and handed to the High Court instead.

There is a subsidiary category where the politicians unite against the rest of the world, instead of relying solely on the governing party. The inquiry into the sale of honours belongs to this class. Indeed, it appears that more Conservative political figures have been interviewed by the police than there have been Labour people; and I should be surprised if there were not a few Liberal Democrats on the list as well.

The other committee is presided over by Sir Hayden Phillips, another wily Welshman who has been lurking in the Whitehall undergrowth for many years and has been brought out of semi-retirement to help Mr Blair in his difficulties. Sir Hayden's cry, as it is Mr Blair's - and Mr Wright's, and that of the entire corps of progressive leader writers - is to give more money, huge wodges of the stuff, to the political parties. The leader writers have swallowed the hook and the lead at the end of the line all at one go. As Wilfred Pickles used to say on the wireless, which some of us are old enough to remember: "Give him the money, Barney." And Barney duly forked out, as the taxpayer will have to oblige similarly by paying colossal sums for idiotic slogans on poster sites all over the country.

On the television Ten O'Clock News last week, the BBC correspondent told us that, for Mr Blair to be found guilty, proof must be produced of Mr Blair's personal involvement. It is not perhaps quite as simple as that. A whole nexus of people is clearly involved. We do not know exactly who produced the money or into whose account it was paid. It is a long time since I studied the criminal law. But it does not seem to me to be self-evident that Mr Blair had personally to authorise the elevation of someone to a peerage - or to collect the money and shove it under the mattress in No 10.

There have already been several photographs in the papers of hitherto obscure members of the No 10 staff, looking as if they were already confined in a big cage and ready to appear in the court in Palermo. In particular, I am interested in Mr Blair's leading chiefs of staff. It does not seem to be strictly necessary to arrest Mr Blair or even to interview him. The law of conspiracy is wide-ranging - perhaps too much so. I await developments. We all do.

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