Look us in the eye and say you're fit to govern

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WHEN they were scrabbling in their minds for vicious insults, what did John Major and John Smith turn to yesterday? The Prime Minister attacked Labour as a wholly owned, subservient and unprincipled creature of the trade unions. The Labour leader assaulted Mr Major by reminding the Commons of the fugitive Asil Nadir and the murky state of Tory finances. Real hatred hung in the air. Finally, the private handshakes between political parties and their paymasters are becoming truly controversial. Not a day too soon.

Unless Mr Smith stands up to the union bosses' 'no say, no pay' threat now hanging over him, he will never be regarded as quite his own man. And until the Conservatives publish details of their foreign funders, Mr Major will be unable to lay to rest the suspicion that a seedy network of quiet favours and unspoken obligations is tainting the British system of government.

The latter, in particular, may seem a harsh judgement. After all, if the donations-for-favours payola worked, Asil Nadir would presumably now be doing deals in his London offices, not lolling in the Cypriot sun. In a properly corrupt system, the Tory chairman would have phoned the Attorney General. The AG would have winked. Cops would have copped-out. Judges would have jumped. Until very recently, that is how things would have happened in Italy. But in Britain, how much protection did a pounds 400,000 donation and all those lunch bills from fat PR men buy Mr Nadir? A couple of letters (ignored). And a pounds 15 watch with a motto on sodomy.

Before we breathe a sigh of relief, though, let's remember why we so readily turn to words such as corruption and rot when talking about undue political favours. Rot spreads. First a small black spot, then the whole banana. First a faint musty smell. Then the reek. First the toe. Then the leg, then the whole person.

Without a certain fanaticism, political corruption cannot be kept at bay. Swathed in the sticky bandages of convenient privacy, the Conservative Party has lost the edge of its fanaticism.

The various foreign potentates, tycoons and others who have paid it money may have asked for nothing in return. That slight shadow of improper influence may have been wholly excluded from ministerial minds during every relevant policy discussion about everything. But when the Tory party, challenged on such matters, goes into a silent, pouting huddle and asks simply to be trusted, the rest of us are entitled to ask, why? The whole world's a bazaar. So who's paying? And for what?

As it happens, I can think of no public figure less likely to be personally corrupt than John Major. But while his party takes big sums without revealing their source (and one of those involved boasted of never knowingly refusing a cheque), it will not be regarded as whiter than white. The laugh is that this murky system has left the Tories some pounds 19m in debt. They have managed to secure the odium without the ease: an act of breathtaking political incompetence.

Some of the same arguments can be turned with equal force on Labour. Its paymasters are domestic and openly publicised. And the unions have a formalised and decisive role in that party's decision-making and career structure which at least compares in influence to that exerted in back rooms by companies and tycoons on its rival. Even United Biscuits doesn't actually have a block vote at the Tory conference.

Both Labour and the Tories ought to be able to look the voters in the eye and convince us that they want to govern for all the people equally, untainted by cash obligations to any particular group, be they Chinese financiers or British dockyard workers. Both of the big-party leaders ought to be able to make policy and spending choices without a glance over their shoulders at the money men. Whatever they claim, money whispers.

This is not a trivial problem for our political system, even though relatively few voters spend time worrying about party finances. It connects with the very authority of the party leaders. What, after all, were Mr Major and Mr Smith trying to achieve at Westminster yesterday? Each wanted to convince the voters that he, and not the other, was the authentic voice of the British people.

But, this week of all weeks, they were handicapped in their populism by the clammy embrace of unwanted financial friends. On one side of the chamber, behind Mr Major and his ministers, sits the spectre of Mr Nadir and other past Tory paymasters: 'Hi, guys] Hi, Michael. Hey, what's wrong? You don't look so glad to see me. I've still got the chequebook. Hey] A fellow's feelings could get hurt.'

On the other side, clustered around Mr Smith, is a doughnut of a self-

important group of union barons. 'Nice speech, John. But just remember, we pay for these benches, too. So budge oop, fatty.'

In neither case are we talking about connections that enhance the ability of one or the other John to speak for the whole country, confidently, authentically, credibly. In both cases, the big parties' understandable desire to raise as much money as easily as possible is coming home to roost. Yesterday was a dramatic and momentous day at Westminster. But we should not forget that this was an argument among people who are themselves viewed with indifference and cynicism by the rest of the country. Until the parties cleanse and reform themselves, the gulf between the politicians and the people will remain bigger than any division on the floor of the Commons.

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