Bruce Anderson: Labour appeared to believe it was above the law it created. Now it's paying the price

Downing Street increasingly resembles Dunsinane during the final acts of 'Macbeth'
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The Independent Online

It would be inaccurate to describe the Labour Party's funding degringolade as peak-hour comedy, for one simple reason. If any scriptwriter had proposed such a treatment, he would have been told to take it away and tone it down in order to make it realistic. Last week's revelations would lack all verisimilitude, if they had not happened.

As poor Gordon Brown may now recognise, luck plays a greater part in politics than most historians will acknowledge. When Tony Blair became PM, Robin Butler, then head of the Civil Service, predicted that he would be a lucky prime minister, like Margaret Thatcher, unlike John Major. Mr Major's friends would often wonder what he had done to bring down so many curses on his government. Did he walk under ladders, spill salt cellars, kick black cats on Friday 13th? Whatever the reason, the motto of his government might as well have been: "What can go wrong will go wrong", and there was nothing that he could do to put matters right.

To be fair to Margaret Thatcher, she not only enjoyed good fortune, she exploited it. If Don Bradman was dropped early in an innings, a groan would resonate among the opposition supporters, who would know that the next chance would not come until he had scored a double century. The same is true of Mrs Thatcher, unlike Tony Blair, who hoarded his luck like a miser, instead of using it as political capital. But Gordon Brown has run out of luck even faster than John Major did. One would almost feel sorry for him if he were not so good at pitying himself.

There are no grounds for regarding Gordon Brown as personally responsible for the funding mess. But this does not mean that he is innocent. He helped to create the mindset which encouraged the criminal behaviour. The Act of Parliament passed in 2000 that created the offences of which senior Labour figures are guilty was ostensibly designed to reform party funding.

In reality, it was devised to make it harder for the Tories to raise funds. The requirement to identify those who gave 5,000 or more was intended to discourage rich men from donating money to the Tories, especially at a time when a lot of people in the City were a little afraid of the Blair government. In those days, there was a surprisingly widespread feeling that prominent support for the Tories was not a healthy lifestyle choice.

So the government passed its anti-Tory Bill. Yet it does not seem to have occurred to senior Labourites that the new law would apply to them. It did not say that donations must be declared unless they were going to the Labour Party, or that the sale of honours would be illegal unless Labour was the beneficiary. But by 2000, an attitude which is easy to identify among Labour bosses in the north-east of England had spread to Westminster. "We will be in government forever. We make the laws. We are the law."

Now, they know better: too late for some reputations. We are being asked to believe that neither the Labour Party's chief fundraiser, Jon Mendelson, nor the senior compliance officer, Jack Dromey, knew about the source of large donations. This sounds like an attempt to insult the voters' intelligence. But if it is true, neither man is fit to occupy an important post. If they are not knaves, they are fools.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with requiring substantial donors to identify themselves. This eliminates a potential source of corruption. Equally, there is nothing corrupt in nominating political donors to receive honours, as long as they are upstanding citizens. Nor is it necessarily unhealthy if those who give enormous sums to political parties are elevated to the House of Lords, as long as they survive scrutiny from an independent committee. In the nature of things, highly successful businessmen who are in a position to contribute seven-figure sums are also likely to be able to contribute to their lordships' proceedings. Nearly all of those who are caught up in the cash-for-peerages enquiry would have made perfectly sound peers.

The same is true of Michael Ashcroft. He is hated by many Labour people because of his role in frustrating the 2000 Act. At a time when it was hard for the Tories to raise money, he paid the bills. If he had withdrawn his support in the early years of this century, the Tory party chairman would have had to make some frantic phone calls before issuing the next set of salary cheques.

Those who believe that support for the Conservative party should be a criminal offence will regard Lord Ashcroft as an arch-villain. Everyone else should salute his public-spiritedness, especially as there are two important differences between him and Labour's trade union supporters. He has never tried to manipulate party policy nor has he attempted to influence the selection of candidates.

Someone has to pay for politics. Unless rich men and trade unions shoulder the burden, it is likely to fall on the taxpayer, who will not be pleased. At one stage, it appears that the Tories might have been willing to accept the principle of State funding, as long as all donations were capped, including trade union ones. Although there might appear to be a high-minded case for this, it ignores one crucial point. The electorate's response would be resolutely low-minded. The voters would punish parties that introduced public funding.

The Tories should have nothing to do with state funding, especially in present circumstances. If Mr Brown now says: "My party cannot raise money honestly, so the public will have to stump up," let him take the consequences. It would be like a convicted burglar stating that, as he could not earn a high enough income from lawful work, he had been forced into crime.

At moments, Gordon Brown must feel that his premiership is turning into a prison sentence. Much of this is David Cameron's fault. According to reports from No 10, the Prime Minister spends Monday to Wednesday morning brooding about the forthcoming Prime Minister's questions, and Wednesday afternoon to Friday morning brooding about his failure. As he also insists that every important decision should go across his desk, a backlog of in-trays is piling up like jumbo jets over Heathrow during an air-traffic controllers' strike. The PM is not only miserable himself; he is a source of misery in others. Working in Downing Street increasingly resembles being a courtier in Dunsinane during the final acts of Macbeth.

There is clearly more to come about the Labour Party's funds: enough to provide daily episodes for the comedy programmes. By the time this is over, there will have been two principal casualties: the Labour Party's bank balance and the Prime Minister's reputation. Gordon Brown never expected to be laughed to scorn, but he had better get used to it.