Leading article: An explosive legacy

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The Independent Online

One of this newspaper's earliest disappointments with Tony Blair was his cavalier attitude to political fundraising and the conflicts of interest it threw up. Changing policy on tobacco advertising to suit Bernie Ecclestone was bad enough, but it got worse, ending in the humiliation of the cash-for-honours investigation.

The former Prime Minister never seemed to understand the hypocrisy of introducing new rules to make funding more open and to guard against conflicts of interest and then seeking to get round them. We were supposed to say: "At least they are better than the Conservatives." And they were, in the sense that donations had to be declared and foreign donations were banned. But Mr Blair nullified any credit that might accrue to his reputation by exploiting a loophole in his Government's own rules.

One way funds were kept secret was to ask rich donors for loans instead. Another device, we now learn, was to smile politely and ask no questions when a rich friend from the north said he "would be instrumental in ensuring that donations were forthcoming" from others, "without wanting to get directly involved myself".

There are two big differences between the scandals that have embarrassed Mr Blair and his successor. The first is that in the present case that of David Abraham's 600,000 donated through third parties over the past four years the law would seem quite plainly to have been broken, as Gordon Brown has accepted. The use of intermediaries was designed, as Mr Abrahams said, to conceal the identity of the donor. The secret loans from people who wanted to be peers were against the spirit but not, as it turned out, against the letter of the law.

The second difference is that Mr Blair personally approved the scheme to hide the sources of Labour's funds; Mr Brown did not, and was justifiably angry when he found out about it. The worst that can be said about the Prime Minister is that he did not insist on a deep-clean of Labour's accounts when he took over and that his fundraiser, Jon Mendelsohn, has some questions to answer about his role in the deputy leadership contest.

The right action has been taken: Peter Watt, the party's general secretary who knew of Mr Abrahams' unorthodox generosity, has resigned; and the money is to be returned. Yet Mr Brown is likely to pay a heavy price for his predecessor's fast, loose and secretive attitude to fundraising. For this week has helped embed an unfortunate image of a bumbling Prime Minister that he will find hard to shake off.