Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

First Stalin. Then Mr Bean. It only remains for Brown to turn into John Major
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The Independent Online

"It's much worse than we thought," an anxious businessman who accompanied Gordon Brown to China and India told a fellow traveller after checking his text messages when we landed at Heathrow. He was referring to the meltdown in the world's stock markets. As word spread, Mr Brown's team were also calculating how their own stock might be affected.

They thought the headlines that would greet them on their return would be hostile about the Government's rescue plan for Northern Rock. Suddenly, they had a different ball to juggle: a global financial wobble. It summed up a week in which the Prime Minister was constantly running to catch up.

On his foreign tour, Mr Brown was in a remarkably sunny mood, even though the cloud of Northern Rock shadowed him at every stage – mainly because Sir Richard Branson had hitched a ride at the very time he was bidding to take over the bank. Perhaps Mr Brown was trying to convince travelling hacks like me that he had put the trauma of last autumn behind him and moved on to the front foot by rolling out policies on health and welfare. If so, he did a good job.

However, after the resignation of Peter Hain, Mr Brown appears to be back to square one. With hindsight, it would have been better if Mr Hain had admitted to his £103,000 of undisclosed donations before Christmas, when he knew the figure. As I understand it, he was frantically ringing round supporters who had donated money through a think tank, the Progressive Policies Forum, in the hope that their names would never become public. A more ruthless minister would have rushed out the list of donors, even it meant upsetting his backers. Mr Hain insisted on talking to them personally to break the bad news that he would have to make their names public.

The delay meant that Mr Brown could not file away the Hain affair in the box marked "autumn horribilis". So his new-year fightback has been derailed, at least temporarily. Again with hindsight, it would have been better if the Prime Minister had fired Mr Hain two weeks ago. He didn't want to prejudge the Electoral Commission's inquiry. But the delay has allowed the Tories to renew their charge that Mr Brown is a "ditherer". It is a label that is starting to stick.

To some extent, Mr Hain is an unlucky victim of a chaotic system of ensuring that our politicians stick to the laws they have passed about their own behaviour. The commission, under fire for being a toothless watchdog, had a straight choice between telling the former Work and Pensions Secretary he had been a bad boy and calling in the Metropolitan Police. It couldn't impose a penalty itself, which seems crazy.

Another anti-sleaze body, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, was set up by John Major after his government was blown off course by a string of scandals. But it only considers general issues, not specific cases.

To complicate matters, MPs must also declare financial support in the Commons register of interests, which is supervised by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner. He reports to MPs on the Standards and Privileges Committee, which recommends any punishments to the House. The system under which some donations must be declared both to the commission and in the register has understandably left MPs confused.

Got it? It seems to me that these various overlapping bodies should be merged into a powerful independent regulator with real teeth and the power to impose a range of punishments on ministers and backbenchers, including a rebuke, fine and suspension from the Commons. Let's call it Ofpol.

Unless Ofpol found evidence of corruption, the police should not get involved in investigating the finances of politicians. Its 13-month "cash for honours" inquiry went nowhere and was never likely to, since it was always going to be virtually impossible to prove a direct link between money and peerages. Much better for the allegations to be investigated by Ofpol. The police have better things to do than to comb through MPs' accounts, and it was always odd that Sir Ian Blair appeared to be investigating his political master and namesake Tony. Such a shake-up of the standards bodies could help Mr Brown's declared aim to restore trust in politics, a pledge that looks a bit threadbare with two police inquiries into Labour funding under way. In the short term, he must keep the show on the road. His cabinet reshuffle was good, and it was clever to promote his bright young things. He's desperate to show that the business of government goes on, unaffected by the noises off – the opposite of John Major, who never regained control of the agenda after Black Wednesday.

So yesterday, James Purnell, Mr Hain's successor at the Department of Work and Pensions, hit the ground running and there'll be a flurry of activity by Mr Brown next week.

Despite another bad week, life goes on. "The game's not over yet," one Brown ally said confidently. But the Prime Minister cannot afford many more bad weeks. If they happen, he really will have transformed from Stalin via Mr Bean into John Major.

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