Steve Richards: Surely the police could make better use of their time than investigating party funding

Everyone knows what has gone on in relation to party funding for years. Everyone knows why it has gone on
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair's monthly press conferences seemed a useful innovation when they were introduced early in the second term. At the very least, they seemed useful to Mr Blair. Quite often his exchanges in Downing Street opened in an apparently stormy context. By the time the exchanges were over, he had established a fleeting political calm.

The last few of these gatherings have felt very different. Mr Blair appears more troubled, as if he realises the near pointlessness of his position as a leader who will be departing shortly. His previously self-assured performances were dependent on the unpredictable outcomes in relation to topical issues. What would he do if there were no weapons in Iraq? How would he cope if most Labour MPs voted against his proposals for schools? What would happen if he held a referendum on Europe and lost?

Ask any of the above and Mr Blair would look ahead and offer a tendentious but persuasive answer. Now there is a precise predictability that overwhelms everything else. Mr Blair will be gone by next summer and therefore much speculation about what he will do in certain circumstances is irrelevant.

With a cruel coincidence he becomes less pivotal as he faces topical issues on which he is unable to engage expansively. Yesterday he was asked about the proposed execution of Saddam.

Mr Blair has enough problems in relation to Iraq without entering an emotive debate about capital punishment and the deranged decisions that led to Saddam being tried in this way. He did not want to say very much beyond a reference to the comments made already by the Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett. Mr Blair was reduced to near silence over Iraq, an issue on which he has spoken more words in the past than any other.

He was also challenged at the press conference about the police investigation into the allegations in relation to cash for honours, another issue on which he can say very little. He maintains that he will not provide what he calls a running commentary on the police investigation. Once more an issue arises in which a prime minister who is going soon could not be his normal persuasive self.

In relation to this curious investigation Mr Blair deserves some sympathy, although in the current hostile climate he will not get much. The so-called cash for honours allegations are presented hysterically, without context and often without acknowledgement of the problems and the responsibilities facing party leaders as they prepare for election campaigns.

In the case of the build-up to the election in 2005, Mr Blair probably became aware that the Conservative coffers were being filled quickly under the new leadership of Michael Howard. What was he to do? He could have sat back and allowed the Tories to build up a big financial advantage, or compete with them with more or less the same amount of cash. I do not blame the Conservatives for seeking to make waves with more money. I understand why Mr Blair felt the need to ensure that Labour could compete on a level playing field. The two leaders were preparing to contest an election for power, not a game of Scrabble on a rainy evening.

Party funding has been the rough, tough, nasty side of British politics for decades. Mr Blair has always disliked raising money, as anyone would. I doubt if Mr Howard went into politics either in order to spend time persuading the wealthy to provide cash. It is a humiliating position for those that aspire to be powerful or who wield power. As matters stand, they have to do it.

There are some political criticisms to be made on the subject in relation to Mr Blair, and they are emblematic of his period in power. He defends his close relations with business leaders by pointing out that he sought to end Labour's dependency on the unions. Mr Blair has a point. Party leaders, especially Labour leaders, cannot win on this issue. Labour was taunted while they were dependent on the unions. Now they are bashed about because of their relations with business.

Even so, Mr Blair's antennae should have been more sharply focused in his dealings with business leaders. Too guided by his party's vote-losing past, Mr Blair was neurotically acute to any dangers posed by unions. For the same reasons, he was too uncritically proud of his close relations with business. In his desire not to be old Labour, he has followed a path on several fronts that led to a new set of deadly problems. A close friend of Lord Levy tells me that when Mr Blair attended a dinner of business leaders at the fundraiser's home, it was the Prime Minister who was in awe.

This does not mean he is a criminal. At the highest levels in Downing Street there are concerns that the police investigating the allegations are following a media agenda, with senior officers too determined to show how tough they are when investigating supposedly mighty figures.

Almost certainly the police will interview Mr Blair. I cannot see how they can conduct an inquiry with such a politically naïve relentlessness without interviewing the leader of the Labour Party. A few weeks ago they interviewed Mr Howard as a witness. Was this a sign that they would treat Mr Blair in the same way, or will they be tougher still?

Whatever happens next, the whole investigation is way over the top. Everyone knows what has gone on in relation to party funding for decades. Everyone knows why it has gone on. Surely the police could make better use of their time.

The broader problem in relation to party funding is that the debate takes place in a dangerous anti-politics era when none of the mainstream parties is popular. But this lazy negativity makes the case for more party activity, rather than less. Parties cannot be allowed to fade because voters turn away from democratic politics.

There is one easy solution. Political activity does not equate always with the battle over which party can blow the most cash on posters in elections. Television companies spend a fortune on elections. They can provide many of the expensive platforms in which the arguments are made. A cap on election spending would prevent the main competitive waste between the parties.

The other measures being reviewed will be important, but peripheral compared with the context in which they are presented. If the general mood is hostile, all the solutions are problematic. The broader argument must be won: Do we want democratic politics in Britain, or a much bleaker alternative?

The answer to that question matters much more than a silly police inquiry that reinforces prejudices about the corrupt tendencies of those we choose to elect. Ironically, the investigation makes a review of party funding necessary, and more difficult to present in a positive way.