Leading Article: It's time the Tories gave the money back

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The silence has been eloquent, significant and depressing. We cannot quite believe it. The Conservative Party has a clear-seeming policy about accepting donations. It was repeated yesterday by its chairman, Dr Brian Mawhinney. He said: ''we do not accept funds with conditions attached from foreign governments, from anonymous donors and from criminal sources.'' But a day earlier, our sister paper, the Independent on Sunday, had revealed that the party knew nearly three years ago that pounds 365,000 of a pounds 400,000 donation from Asil Nadir, the disgraced businessman, was stolen money. This was not some loose allegation from a hostile journalist or Labour Party researcher. It was hard evidence in a report overseen by a senior partner at Touche Ross, a leading firm of accountants. One would have thought that taking stolen money went against the Conservative policy.

It is genuinely disturbing that the party has done no such thing. The first excuse, made privately to Touche Ross, was that the money had been taken ''in good faith''. How many people would consider this a decent reaction in their private lives? If the reader had taken a gift of money from a casual acquaintance, which later turned out to have been stolen from a third party, would you keep it, on the grounds that ''I never knew''? But we are talking, of course, not about a private individual, but about the party that has led Britain for many people's adult lifetime. Different standards should apply - higher ones. The second excuse, made to this newspaper yesterday, is that the Conservatives don't accept the connection made by Touche Ross is absolutely proven - but that if it went to court, they would abide by the court's decision. Well thanks a lot. As the party knows full well, the sum of money involved is not considered big enough to warrant the expense of a separate legal action. But the mere fact that the Conservatives are, in effect, saying that they won't hand back stolen money unless dragged through the courts and forced to do so is extraordinary.

Presumably the final line of defence will be that there were no ''conditions attached'' - the get-out clause carefully written into the party policy. But in the real world, that is not how things are done. There can be few if any shady characters who pay money into a party account in return for a written commitment to build this bypass or change this taxation rule. Even in bad political novels, such attempts to buy influence are represented as acts of delicate innuendo - nose-tapping, discreet-coughing exchanges in the corners of expensive restaurants.

The Conservative reluctance to hand back the Nadir money, and the party's shameless attitude to the whole subject, provides the backdrop to the other new allegation, the Sunday Times report suggesting that Serb businessmen with connections to Radovan Karadzic, who is being sought to answer war crimes allegations, paid pounds 100,000 to the party. At this stage, there are too many unanswered questions for anyone to make a final judgement - we don't know whether the unnamed businessman was a Serb nationalist or just a Serb. If the British Conservative Party really did take Serb-connected money at the height of the war, it would be a national humiliation. The point is, however, that the Conservatives ask us to accept that they were acting in good faith and, while their own inquiries continue, should be given the benefits of any doubts.

In all honesty, how can they be? It is not as if the Serbian story or even the Nadir story, were one-off events. Let us put this in the kindest way possible: the Conservatives have not been spectacularly lucky in their choice of donors. There was Octav Botnar, the Nissan UK chief who fled to Switzerland. There was Mohammed Hashemi, the Iranian arms dealer whose brothers were arrested in the United States. There was Kamlesh Pattni, wanted by the Nigerian police for fraud. There was Nazmu Virani, jailed in 1994 after being convicted for false accounting in the BCCI affair. And these, remember, are only a few names picked up by the press.

The time has passed when major political parties can be relied on to behave in a proper or gentlemanly fashion. As international business becomes ever more powerful, the need for national politicians to be very careful about their friends and donors becomes ever greater. To date, the Conservatives' stock response has been ''we're innocent because we thought we were acting honourably''. This is remarkably similar to the stock defence to the charges of misleading Parliament contained in the Scott report - ''we didn't believe we were doing wrong, so we weren't''. It is laughable, but serious, too. It is the dark fruit of too many years in office, too much power and too much privacy.

In the longer term, reform of party funding should begin by making all donations and loans to political parties matters which must be published. But in the short term there is one thing that the Conservatives should do to begin to clear their reputation in this matter. It is quite simple. It can happen this morning. Let's put it plainly: just give the money back.