Leading Article: The true price of a free gift

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When journalists welcomed the return of Peter Mandelson because it would make British politics more interesting, we had no idea quite how quickly and how richly this prediction would be fulfilled. Nor, frankly, did we have an inkling that the party that would suffer most from the return of "interesting" times, in the sense of the word used in the Chinese curse, would be the Conservative Party.

But that, in a plot line that might have been derided as "too neat" had it been written by Michael Dobbs, is what happened last week. A routine piece of mischief by which George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, seems to have rebounded. Unable to contain his glee, he appears to have reported that only weeks before the reshuffle Mr Mandelson had "dripped pure poison" into his ear in a chance holiday encounter in Corfu.

This offended Mr Osborne's host, Nat Rothschild, a rich fund manager, who blew the whistle on the shadow Chancellor's visit to the yacht of a Russian plutocrat, Oleg Deripaska. Mr Rothschild says Mr Osborne discussed how a donation to the Tory party from a foreigner might be paid through Mr Deripaska's British company, Leyland DAF. Mr Osborne denies it, and we, of course, accept his denial.

Even without any evidence of wrongdoing, however, the picture painted of how the other (political) half lives was unedifying. Yesterday's report by Andrew Grice, our political editor, that David Cameron accepted free flights in private jets to meet Rupert Murdoch, the media tycoon, on another yacht in another part of the Mediterranean,completed a summer network of money, power and favours.

Why did the Conservative leader accept these perks? He made a great deal earlier this year of his great courage in tidying up a small corner of the Augean stables of MPs' expenses. After Derek Conway, the Tory MP, was censured for putting his son on the public payroll in return for no visible work, Mr Cameron declared that he would make sure that "any arrangements we enter into are ones we are prepared to protect and defend in a court of public opinion". Suddenly, Mr Cameron finds himself with a rather uncomfortable amount of defending to do.