Leading article: The only solution is absolute transparency

 

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Even by David Cameron's standards, it was a swift U-turn. First thing yesterday, Downing Street was still refusing to publish a list of the significant donors to the Conservative Party who had dined at No 10. By mid-morning, the Prime Minister had bowed to the pressure of the inevitable, and details of four dinners were duly released. Quite right, too.

Mr Cameron claims to want to lead the most transparent and open government in the world. But the reality has been all too different, the most substantial progress made only when the Prime Minister has a gun to his head.

Rules ensuring that ministers log all meetings with media executives, for example, were only put in place after the brouhaha over phone hacking had claimed the News of the World and led to the creation of the Leveson Inquiry. Given that the cosy relations between Government and media would unavoidably feature in the hearings, Mr Cameron's move was less a sign of a heartfelt commitment to openness than a pre-emptive strike.

Similarly, proposals to set up a register of lobbyists had all but stalled until this newspaper's investigation revealed Bell Pottinger executives touting for business from a repressive regime, boasting about their links with the Conservative high command and claiming that clients' "messages" would get through to top advisers.

And it is only now – in an attempt to head off the scandal over Peter Cruddas's crude hawking of access and influence – that Mr Cameron has grudgingly revealed his dinner dates with major benefactors and set out rules that ministers meeting with party donors must report any discussions of policy to their Permanent Secretaries.

Mr Cameron's ill-judged reticence alone would have added to suspicions of impropriety. But it is his supporters' efforts to explain his reluctance – with spurious distinctions between public and private dinners, between meals that take place in Downing Street or elsewhere, between those at Mr Cameron's expense and those not – that really make the case for complete openness in all matters relating to access to the Prime Minister.

A central claim is that the Downing Street flat is a private home and that any activities there should therefore be sacrosanct. The assertion is a ludicrous one. The flat is the residence of the British Prime Minister. It cannot be argued that simply because food is served upstairs rather than downstairs there is no cause for concern.

Quite the reverse, in fact. So long as large sums of money are changing hands, the implication of influence bought is unavoidable; even more so, if the meetings are informal. Indeed, the two-step over Mr Cameron's supper companions has only added to the sense of government-by-coterie, of a blurred world of friendship and influence accessible to those with money to pay. It is up to the Prime Minister to dispel such damaging impressions forthwith.

Ultimately, there is but one remedy: take the big money out of politics. Previous attempts to cap donations have fallen foul of the three main parties' inability to agree. But the Cruddas scandal may yet tip the balance, and Francis Maude, a senior Tory minister, yesterday announced plans for expedited cross-party talks on reform.

In the meantime, it is incumbent upon Mr Cameron to institute an immediate policy of absolute transparency. That means not simply a list of dinners with donors. It means every engagement of any kind must be put into the public domain. The sacrifice of his personal privacy is a small price to pay to guarantee the incorruptibility of the highest office of the land.

If Britain is to continue to preach democracy around the world, we must get our own house in order.

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