Bruce Anderson: What's so wrong with making peers of rich men?

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The Independent Online

For once, Tony Blair has not committed a great wrong. He is merely guilty of cynicism, deception and hypocrisy; what is new? It would require extraordinary naivety to be surprised by Mr Blair's behaviour - or equal hypocrisy to pretend to be.

In the case of this serial criminal, those misdemeanours rank well down the list of the 240 or so other offences to be taken into consideration. My friend Matthew d'Ancona, the new editor of The Spectator, must be the only man in Britain who still thinks that Tony Blair has morals (and Tessa Jowell, brains).

When he became Prime Minister, Mr Blair introduced rules to create a new, transparent regime for political donations. In future, gifts of more than £5,000 would have to be declared. To be fair to Tony Blair, he appears to have stuck to the rules, for about five minutes. They then became inconvenient. Suddenly it was a case of "It's a gift; no, it's a loan; no, its a peerage."

But anyone who believed that Tony Blair would adhere to his rules, or any other rules, for five minutes after they became inconvenient is the sort of person who would leave a dog in charge of a butcher's shop.

On the subject of absurd appointments, there is one reason for welcoming the cash for peerages affair. It has kept Lord Levy out of mischief. Michael Levy knows a lot about pop music. He plays tennis with Tony Blair and raises money for him. On that basis, the Prime Minister made him a special envoy to the Middle East.

As a result, Lord Levy, a man of monumental vanity, has been blundering around that complex region, insisting that he is speaking for the British Government, and thus making life even more difficult for the ambassadors who have to manage and communicate British foreign policy. As Hamlet said of Polonius, "Let the doors be shut upon him, that he may play the fool nowhere but in's own house."

Even so, if Mr Blair knew anything about history, he could claim that his peerage policy was in accordance with tradition. A House of Lords full of the rich and the powerful; that is what happened in the Middle Ages, when the barons were summoned to Parliament. Pitt the Younger said that anyone with £10,000 a year ought to have a peerage (a million in modern money). Admittedly, Pitt did not sell peerages, but is that so terribly wrong?

A man makes a great deal of money. In so doing, he will also create jobs while adding to economic growth and national wealth. He then decides that he would like a handle to his name. So he makes large charitable or political donations. Why not reward this with a peerage? Unlike Lord Levy's, that sort of vanity is harmless, and almost by definition, a mightily successful businessman should have something to contribute to the Lords' debates.

Moreover, there are now checks, and not only to weed out those whose great fortunes were based on great crimes. These days, it is much harder to promote a wrong 'un to the House of Lords.

As one peer involved in the scrutiny process put it the other day, "There is behaviour which ought to land you in prison. There is behaviour which would once have been regarded as a one-way ticket to hell. But even if a man does not deserve to be sent to hell or to prison, that does not entitle him to a place in the House of Lords."

That is a sound practice, but even so, the scrutiny process may be too severe. I have met Chai Patel, and thought him to be charming, interesting and admirable. A health entrepreneur; we need more of them. A promoter of public-private health partnerships; ditto. He struck me as the sort of chap who ought to be consulted by sensible health spokesmen of all parties, and as such, an obvious candidate for the Lords. No wonder he is so upset, especially as he has no means of rebutting the slurs on his reputation. I would take a lot of convincing that he is not the victim of a grave injustice.

That could never be true of Tony Blair, and the Prime Minister ought now to beware. Those who have been observing him at Westminster for the past few years may have exhausted their reserves of cynicism; that is not true of the general public. Up to now, whenever he found himself in political difficulty, the Prime Minister was able to moralise his way out of trouble. This infuriated his opponents, reminding them of the comment made of Gladstone by an equally, though less justifiably, baffled political antagonist. "I would not mind so much when he produced the ace of trumps from up his sleeve, if he did not pretend that it was the Almighty who put it there." But the days have gone when Tony Blair could confound his critics by religious card-sharping.

There is growing sense of moral revulsion. Suppose Mr Blair were now to claim that he was "a pretty straight sort of guy", the laughter would be audible on the moon. As an increasingly large number of his own MPs are disgusted with his behaviour, why should the public make a more charitable judgement? It is becoming hard to see how Mr Blair can brazen himself out of this. He has been looking for a legacy. Instead he has found his epitaph: "This was the Prime Minister who took the shy out of shyster."