Leading article: Wise old bird who deserves the chance to spread his wings further

Click to follow
The Independent Online
It is a pity that Tony Blair's promise to clean up politics has been so tarnished by the affair of the pounds 1m donation from the king of Formula One motor racing. As it is, the Prime Minister's declaration of war against corruption in local government in Scarborough yesterday is bound to be viewed through eyes slightly narrowed with cynicism.

All the stuff about the fast and furious rooting out of wrongdoing smacked a little too much of posturing for the sake of today's headlines, from a party leader who senses his grip on the moral high ground of politics is slipping.

That does not mean Mr Blair's stern warning to local councillors is unwelcome, but perhaps the Prime Minister ought to take more credit for having already done the one thing that really matters in restoring people's confidence in the ethical standards of British politics: he has appointed Patrick Neill as enforcer of the crusade to clean up party funding.

Lord Neill is a wise old bird, as might be expected of someone who was not merely a fellow of All Souls but warden of the place. But there is no ivory-spires unworldliness about him. Even as he was donning Lord Nolan's shining armour, he stopped the Labour Party's attempt to slip a trick past him. Over the weekend before he took up his post as Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, he was asked in a letter, which had been approved by the Prime Minister, whether Labour was right to refuse further donations from Mr Ecclestone. Sir Patrick, as he then was, saw through the ploy at once, and ordered the party to hand back the donation it had already received - little knowing (because the party had not told him) that it would turn out to be as much as pounds 1m.

Since then, he has continued to demonstrate such spirited independence that all but the most partisan citizens should now be cheering him on loudly. With a matter-of-fact radicalism, he declared that his remit would include the link between party donations and honours. Lords Puttnam, Paul and Hamlyn, on whose offshore trusts we report today, should look out for their red-leather-upholstered seats. Mr Blair's innocence may be genuine when he protests that they were ennobled purely on the basis of their kindness to small furry animals (or whatever). But he needs a strong outside authority to insist that, because they have given money to the party, there should be a presumption against making them life peers. It really does not matter that the Conservative record on "cash for honours" was far, far worse.

Last night, Lord Neill bulldozed the convention of "not pre-empting the committee's deliberations" to tell the BBC precisely what else he has in mind. It is a very good list: all donations over pounds 1,000 to be declared; a limit on national election spending; a ban on blind trusts; and an electoral commissioner to police this revolutionary new regime. To which the only proposal which really needs to be added is that all donations should be declared immediately on receipt.

Now, if all that lot could hit the statute books by the time of the next election, Labour would have delivered - almost despite itself - on its promise of a "new politics". What is so refreshing about it is that it truly embodies the spirit in which Mr Blair and his party attacked the Tories before the election, while dismissing ruthlessly Labour's weasel excuses for failing to live up to that spirit since May last year.

Mr Blair, to take another example, thought a blind trust to fund his private office was a good idea. The principle sounds worthy, because if he did not know who was paying he could not be influenced. But blind trusts fail the test of the "general principle of openness" which Lord Neill set out yesterday.

That general principle takes him further than Labour's position in other respects. Labour should be praised for voluntarily and unilaterally publishing the names of its donors who pay more than pounds 5,000 in a year, but that does not mean that the rules to be enforced against all parties should be even tighter. While party membership and small donations should clearly remain private, pounds 5,000 is to the vast majority of British voters a very big "bung", and cutting the threshold to pounds 1,000 would ensure that there is no appearance of undue influence.

Lord Neill was right, too, to dismiss the argument that people will try to find ways around a national cap on election campaign spending. "Whatever you put in place, there will be some clever chap thinking of a way round it," he said. But it is essential for the sake both of the quality and the fairness of our democracy that there should be a level playing field. What is needed is a powerful electoral commissioner to enforce the rules. Lord Neill has already proved that he is the ideal person for the job.