Leading article: The poison is in the cover-up

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The Independent Online

The full story of how Tony Blair tried to sell peerages has been a while unravelling, and there is more of this unseemly tangle to be teased out yet. But it is abundantly clear now that the Prime Minister has fallen short of the standards he set himself, let alone those by which any elected politician should be judged. Much has been made - possibly too much - of the "purer than pure" phrase Mr Blair once used in response to allegations that a young former adviser had tried to use his New Labour connections to stuff his wallet. The present imbroglio is not, of course, about personal enrichment, but the purchase of seats in a legislative assembly. Yet Mr Blair undoubtedly claimed, in effect, that he and his Government would be held to a higher standard than the Conservatives, to whom he was happy to have the "sleaze" label attached.

It is no use Mr Blair saying, therefore, that the Tories did it too. So they did, and it was shameful then. At least the Prime Minister does not insult our intelligence with that defence. Instead, he says that Labour has legislated for disclosure. True, but irrelevant, because he has been exposed as trying to get around his own requirement for greater openness.

As ever, it is the cover-up that has made a wounding issue politically toxic. It was bad enough that Mr Blair nominated Labour donors for peerages, which is what this newspaper reported last October. It was not until our Political Editor reported last weekend that three of them had also secretly lent the party millions of pounds that the full tawdriness of Mr Blair's fundraising emerged. The problem with a loan is not just that it is a device to avoid disclosure - Chai Patel says that the party asked him not to make a donation but to make a loan instead. It is that a loan creates more of a sense of obligation than an outright gift because the lender could ask for it back. Anyone with a shred of integrity should be able to see that the spirit rather than the letter of the rules requires disclosure of loans as if they were gifts. That is what all the parties last week agreed to do. It is to David Cameron's and Sir Menzies Campbell's shame as much as Mr Blair's that it has taken The Independent on Sunday to force them to do what they should have done themselves. Even this, though, is not good enough. The party leaders accept that they will declare loans in future, but do not want to detail the sources of past loans. Sam Younger, the chairman of the Electoral Commission, tells us today that past lenders should be named. No doubt the parties will argue that the money was lent on the understanding that names would not be published. Too bad. The parties will have to ask each creditor to choose: they can be identified or they can have their money back.

Finally, we should dismiss two other excuses the Prime Minister put forward in an attempt to divert responsibility even as he pretended to take it. One, he said that parties had to raise large sums of money, and if they didn't the taxpayer would have to give it to them. Nonsense. As long as the rules are transparent, apply equally to all parties, and are scrupulously observed, the parties will have to cut their cloth according to the money they raise. Two, he said that the right of parties to nominate peers would be considered in the next stage of House of Lords reform. But the problems arise largely because of his own long insistence on an appointed second chamber.

No: there are no excuses. The buck - or million-pound cheque - stops on the Prime Minister's desk. Full, belated disclosure, and a full, belated apology, are in order.

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