Alan Watkins: Profligacy: the root of all Mr Brown's troubles

The tendency of Labour leaders to spend too much money ours or donors' has pushed the party into its latest freefall
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The Independent Online

If Mr Gordon Brown does his full term, into May 2010, he will have served for longer than Campbell-Bannerman, Eden, Douglas-Home and Bonar Law. He will be on a par with Chamberlain and nudging Jim Callaghan. Whether this will cheer Mr Brown up, I do not know. Governments that are in trouble tend to go on, hoping for the best.

This, after all, was what Sir (as he then wasn't) John Major did for the five years before 1997. Before that, he had enjoyed a brief period of matrimonial happiness. So had Mr Brown, except that Mr Brown's spell was much shorter, three months in contrast to Sir John's year-and-a-half.

In my childhood, I would be surprised constantly by the way in which the shape of the mountain changed, depending on where you were when you looked at it. Mr Brown is rather like this. He is still recognisably the same politician as he was in the early summer: but he looks quite different. What appeared as calmness and resolution gave way to a combination of petulance and stubbornness.

It defies rational belief that Mr Brown should now find himself in similar financial trouble to Mr Tony Blair's earlier difficulties. Mr Blair's ascent to office had been helped on its way by his attacks on Sir John. Mr Brown had given assistance to this lengthy enterprise, though the assault had been led by Mr Alastair Campbell. Many of the constitutional innovations of those times derive from the declining Tory years.

There was the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which for six months now has been without a chairman, Sir Alistair Graham having been given the heave-ho by Mr Blair's government because he asked too many awkward questions. Ms Elizabeth Filkin, as the parliamentary commissioner for standards, met with the same fate for similar reasons, though a replacement for her is now in place. There is a committee on appointments to the House of Lords, though it does not seem to have done much good where recent scandals have been concerned.

The locking device the little man on top of the wedding cake was the Act of 2000 controlling political parties, elections and referendums. This was the handiwork of Mr Jack Straw as Home Secretary. It was certainly a very long measure. Mr Straw deserved a certain amount of credit for having seen it through. It created yet another body, the Electoral Commission.

This is the authority which has now called in the Metropolitan Police to investigate whether contributions to the Labour Party were unlawful. So they were, because they came through intermediaries. This was common ground. At the same time, however, Mr Brown could not act on his own, only through the commission. This was what he claimed at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday. But the commission could not move without being asked to do so by somebody else; or so it appeared. The constabulary have now been alerted, ably assisted by Mr John Yates ("Yates of the Yard").

I spent an entire afternoon watching Mr Yates being bullied and harassed by a Commons committee under the chairmanship of Mr Tony Wright. The witness kept being asked, not whether he had any evidence, but whether he could, in the nature of things, possibly have had evidence of any kind. It was a salacious example of the questionable principle of verification. Mr Yates and his colleagues may be spared any further nonsense of this kind. Let us hope so.

Presumably the Electoral Commission will make a report of its own, independently of any police inquiry. And what is to become of Mr Brown's own party investigation? It was announced at his press conference on Tuesday. There were to be two stages. The first was to be conducted by an apparatchik, or a former apparatchik, in the shape of Lord Whitty, a former general secretary of the party. Then there was to be a confluence of Church and State in the persons of Lord Harries, a former bishop, and Lord McCluskey, a former Scottish law officer. It is a colossal waste of three people's time, designed only as a holding device.

Even Larry Whitty, who stepped down in 1994, was a more substantial figure than his successors. The years of New Labour have witnessed a gradual and, I am sure, deliberate depreciation in the status and authority of the party's officials. It is extraordinary unbelievable that the now resigned general secretary, Mr Peter Watt, should have advised that it was perfectly all right to channel contributions through others. It was equally strange for Mr Brown's recently appointed fundraiser, Mr Jon Mendelsohn, to display the same degree of ignorance. It was a case of the blind leading, perhaps, those who did not want to see the way ahead. As they used to say in the playground: "It was him that made me do it, Miss."

Certainly Ms Harriet Harman's husband, the party Treasurer, Mr Jack Dromey, was kept in ignorance throughout the proceedings, as he had been in the previous adventures of the purchased peerages. Mr Dromey gives me the impression of being a much-tried man.

I have always had a soft spot for his wife, even though she once reported me to the Press Council as it was then called. Part of the reason for my regard is that I correctly predicted her victory in the contest for the deputy leadership of the party, while most experts chose Mr Alan Johnson instead, and the poor bookies settled, to begin with anyway, on Mr Hilary Benn. It is always gratifying to have one's forecasts fulfilled.

I have no desire to detract from Mr Benn's saint-like appearance or serious demeanour. But he did accept 5,000 from the principal donor, Mr David Abrahams, having rejected the offer of the same sum from Mr Abrahams' agent, Ms Janet Kidd. His reasoning was that although he did not want to take money from third parties, Baroness Jay did know Mr Abrahams. So that was all right.

Ms Harman however, accepted the same sum from Ms Kidd on the basis that she was a regular donor as indeed, she had been, even if she had been acting on Mr Abrahams' behalf. Ms Harman claims she did not know this. Making all allowances for my affection for Ms Harman, I think she is being put in the pillory because she is deputy leader, because she is a woman and because she irritates many parliamentary sketch writers.

All leading articles in the prig press end, or even begin, with a call for increased state funding. The recent discussions under Sir Hayden Phillips have been called off, one side blaming the other. It is all great humbug. There was not the slightest necessity for the candidates for the deputy leadership to incur debts of five figures and to expect others donors or taxpayers to fork out on their behalf.

In 1976 there were six candidates for the leadership, one of them Mr Benn's father, Tony. None of them spent the sums involved earlier this year. In those days there was an electorate restricted to Labour MPs. But in 2007 Mr Brown did not even have an opponent. He still managed to waste a lot of money.