Leading article: Where folly and sleaze collide

The Secretary for Work and Pensions has been reported to Parliament's anti-sleaze watchdog for failing to declare donations to his campaign for the Labour deputy leadership – as well he should have been. The sum is not inconsiderable; and, in theory, anyone who cares about standards in public life should be in high dudgeon about Peter Hain's admitted violation of the rules.

We say "in theory" because it is quite hard to treat what Mr Hain calls an innocent mistake as evidence of personal, or party, sleaze on the grand scale. What happened, in so far as any of it is clear, bears the hallmarks of cock-up rather than conspiracy.

This does not make the offence any less reprehensible. But it does slightly change the nature of what he should be blamed for. So improbable are the details that you almost have to pinch yourself. We are talking here about the British Labour Party, not the presidency of the United States, and the election in question was for deputy leader, not for leader.

Yet the campaign for this relatively modest position still cost in total half a million pounds, and the eventual winner, Harriet Harman, took out a mortgage on her house. Mr Hain, with an outlay of more than £200,000, was the highest spender, but he came in only fifth (out of six). What is more, the contributions for which he is being taken to task came in after the contest was over. What political donor in his or her right mind contributes to a candidate who has already lost?

The conclusions are as obvious as they are worrying. Mr Hain badly wanted a position for which he never stood a real chance. He spent far more money than he initially raised, and his campaign management was an unmitigated mess. An MP who assisted in the campaign insisted to the BBC yesterday that Mr Hain's spending was only slightly more than that of Ms Harman, even after it had been pointed out that it was, in fact, double.

Mr Hain's failure to declare more than half his campaign receipts might suggest an element of sleaze. Everything else we have learnt suggests incompetence and a limited grasp of reality. Is this really someone who should be a cabinet minister, let alone the one ultimately responsible for the nation's work and pensions? Fortunately for Mr Hain, such matters fall well outside the remit of the Parliamentary standards watchdog.

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