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Leading article: Tories should sell up or be sacked

There is a difference between the two controversies over the financial interests of politicians that we report today. One is serious and the other trivial. That six Conservative MPs, including three frontbenchers, have large shareholdings in companies that are complicit in Robert Mugabe's oppression of Zimbabwe makes meaningless David Cameron's pose as the defender of democracy and human rights. That Wendy Alexander, Labour leader in the Scottish Parliament, failed to put donations that she had already disclosed on the register of members' interests is a bureaucratic trifle. Requiring an apology, perhaps, but a resignation? Surely not.

The big picture is that the Conservative Party is guilty of hypocrisy, while Ms Alexander is not. Mr Cameron said last week: "Businesses and individuals that have any dealings with Zimbabwe must examine their responsibilities and ensure that they do not make investments that prop up the regime." When The Independent on Sunday gave the Conservative MPs the chance to explain how they sought to "examine their responsibilities", they responded differently.

Dominic Grieve, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "The Conservative Party has made it clear that companies operating in Zimbabwe must adhere to the highest ethical standards and I fully endorse that view." Those words sit ill with the fact that, as Gugulethu Moyo points out opposite, foreign capital is sustaining Mr Mugabe's regime. Robert Goodwill, shadow Transport Minister, said: "I don't feel particularly proud to be a Barclays shareholder," but added, "It is not a very good time to sell the shares." Anthony Steen said he did not know that Unilever or Shell was involved in Zimbabwe.

The Conservative leader said, after the "whoops-a-daisy" expenses oversight of a Tory MEP: "Anyone who flies under the Conservative banner carries a wider responsibility to the reputation of the party."

Against the moral scale of Mr Cameron's claim that his party is helping to mobilise all forms of pressure on Mr Mugabe's tyranny, Ms Alexander's trouble with donations is neither here nor there. She says that the clerks to the standards committee advised her that donations to her leadership campaign last August, which were already public knowledge, were not registrable. When she was advised that they were, she registered them. So unimportant was this that it has been easily confused with the fuss over another donation, of £950, that turned out to be from an ineligible donor in Jersey – which, as every pub quiz bore knows, is not part of the UK. Neither case was sufficient to warrant her resignation, and she was unwise to use the more recent case as an excuse to give up the thankless task, because it could be read as an admission of more serious guilt.

Mr Cameron's problems, on the other hand, are part of a wider pattern. To be sure, Tony Blair had a terrible record on issues that were lazily labelled "sleaze", but they were to do with raising money for the Labour Party, whereas recent Tory money scandals have been a matter of personal enrichment. Derek Conway's taxpayer-funded family business; Ann and Nicholas Winterton's taxpayer-funded family property; Giles Chichester's European taxpayer-funded family business; Caroline Spelman's taxpayer-funded family nanny – and that is just what has been uncovered this year.

The Zimbabwe issue is, of course, different again, in that we are talking about MPs who happen to be rich – and therefore to have declarable shareholdings worth more than an MP's salary – rather than MPs who seem to assume that the taxpayer should keep them in a style that they think befits their status. But Mr Cameron, who has accepted the description of himself as "wealthy", needs to work much harder to convince people that the Conservative Party will live up to the high standards of transparency, propriety and ethical investment of which he has spoken.

Things seem to be going Mr Cameron's way at the moment. Last week's anniversary of Gordon Brown's premiership was marked with a by-election that was as encouraging for the Tories as it was terrible for Labour. In the only part of the country where the Conservatives do not enjoy a lead in the opinion polls, Scotland, Labour is in disarray against the Nationalists.

The mood of the nation may well be against Mr Brown – although there could be two years before an election – but that has not yet translated into positive enthusiasm for Mr Cameron. He must show that he meant it when he said, of MPs' expense claims: "Any arrangements we enter into are ones we are prepared to protect and defend in a court of public opinion." He should start by requiring his frontbenchers to sell their shares in companies that are propping up Mr Mugabe's despotic regime. Or sack them.