Leading article: A diminished politician, a damaged government

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The only surprising aspect of Peter Hain's resignation yesterday was that it took so long to come about. The Work and Pension Secretary's departure from the Cabinet was inevitable the moment it emerged he had failed to declare to the Electoral Commission the extraordinarily large donations he had received to fund his deputy leadership campaign last year.

Mr Hain's excuse for the omission – that he was pre-occupied with his ministerial job – was never credible. It was well known in Westminster that Mr Hain was desperate to take over from John Prescott as deputy leader. The fact that he spent far more than any of his rivals in the race is testament to his commitment to achieving this goal. The idea that he was somehow semi-detached from the campaign because he was so busy with his day job is risible.

No; Mr Hain's failure to declare the donations can only be explained by two things. Either he did not know the rules governing donations, or he felt they did not apply to him. The first indicates gross incompetence, the second contempt for the very transparency laws his Government had introduced. Either way, Mr Hain's position was clearly untenable from a very early stage. The fact that money was channelled through a mysterious think-tank that has never produced any research merely added to the air of impropriety.

Mr Brown's expressions of support never convinced either. Mr Hain's presence in the Cabinet was a growing embarrassment, and the Prime Minister's failure to act provides more ammunition for Tory charges of dithering and indecision. Additionally, the timing of this scandal – so soon after the cash-for-honours investigation that dogged Tony Blair's final months in power and in the middle of an Electoral Commission inquiry into suspect donations to Labour from the developer David Abrahams – could not have been worse. Political opponents have used Mr Hain's presence on the front bench to cast doubt on the very integrity of the Government. A police inquiry would have doubled that pressure.

Of course, it is not hard to understand why Mr Hain might have wanted to keep the donations quiet. There is something distasteful about a man who made his name as a valiant anti-apartheid campaigner taking money from a diamond dealer, Willie Nagel, who made a fortune working with De Beers of South Africa in the 1950s. The fact that Mr Nagel previously donated money to the constituency of former Conservative Prime Minister John Major made the arrangement still more dubious.

Mr Hain comes out of all this a sadly diminished figure. We say sadly not only because of his courageous past in confronting the apartheid regime in South Africa and many years fighting racism, but because Mr Hain, for all his faults, was the sort of politician who could occasionally break free from the chains of party discipline and speak his mind. He was a firm supporter of British entry to the euro. And his attack on "obscene" City bonuses in last year's deputy leadership campaign looks remarkably prescient in the light of the current credit crunch, sparked by irresponsible bankers.

We must wait for the report from the parliamentary standards commissioner and the police investigation to learn the complete truth about what happened with Mr Hain's hapless campaign. But even if investigators are relatively kind to Mr Hain, he will find it difficult to resurrect his ministerial career because of the drawn-out manner of his departure. That he hung on until the Electoral Commission referred the late declaration to the police will not be soon forgotten. The first resignation from Mr Brown's Cabinet has been a messy and damaging affair for the Government. The blame lies squarely on Mr Hain's stubbornness in resisting the inevitable.

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