Leading article: A dangerous credibility gap

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The Independent Online

It is perhaps a little hard on estate agents that they have become the standard by which untrustworthiness is judged. And we cannot but admit to a certain amount of fellow-feeling: journalists regularly vie with estate agents for the accolade of "least trusted" in surveys. To learn, as we did yesterday, however, that estate agents and journalists are both now outdone in the credibility stakes by politicians is not something that should be brushed off quite so easily.

We have a choice about who to engage as an estate agent, or even whether to engage one at all, just as you have a choice about the newspaper that you read. Politicians are, or should be, a different matter. If the voting public has come to treat what they say or do with a sceptical sneer, our democracy has reached a pretty pass. Yet few would dispute that in the dying months of Tony Blair's prime ministership, this is the point we have reached. Indeed, we hardly needed the latest survey to tell us that trust in politicians had fallen to a record low.

Official pronouncements are routinely greeted with cynicism, if not plain disbelief. There is an ingrained suspicion of politicians' motives. And the focus of the public's distrust is instructive. While few suspected politicians of abusing their power to enrich themselves - a small piece of good news - barely three in ten said they trusted MPs to tell the truth. It is a sad comment on political authority today, but the moment Mr Blair utters the word "frankly", it is surely not only journalists who are on their guard. As for Gordon Brown saying that Mr Blair will "always" be his friend, we rest our case. No one thing can be blamed for the current gulf of confidence between politicians and the public - although Mr Blair's personal touting of Iraq's non-existent weapons and the findings of the Hutton inquiry are striking landmarks along the way. It has rather been the steady accumulation of disingenuousness, the perceived conflict between what ministers have said and done and the vacuity of so much New Labour language, which bears scant relation to how people really speak.

Eliminating the trust gap must be an absolute priority for our politicians as they contemplate the post-Blair era. If they can draw consolation from anything at such a time, it is surely this: that having fallen even below estate agents in credibility, there is only one way to go, and it is up.