O what a tangled web our leader weaves

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It was that undervalued author Sir Walter Scott who noted: "O what a tangled web we weave/When first we practise to deceive!" Nearly 40 years later Robert Browning wrote: "Never glad confident morning again!" He explained the reason for this loss of trust in William Wordsworth: "Just for a handful of silver he left us,/Just for a ribbon to stick in his coat."

Mr Tony Blair has no ribbons yet. He has not taken any silver either. Quite apart from his own highly-developed moral sense - I am not being ironical - he has no need of it. With his wife's earnings added to his salary, his is a prosperous household. It was the People's Party that took Mr Bernie Ecclestone's silver, a million pounds' worth of it. The party has now had to pay it back, much to the consternation and surprise of its general secretary, Mr Tom Sawyer.

Mr Sawyer, by the way, is one of several representatives of Old Labour who have made their peace with and even prospered under the new regime, much as old party comrades do in Eastern European and other still unhappier parts of the world. He it was who, as general secretary of NASTY, THUGGO or one of those "public service" unions which did so much damage to the last Labour government, opposed John Smith's proposals for party democracy with the rousing cry: "No say, no pay." Other old lags who have, in the modern idiom, reinvented themselves include Ms Harriet Harman, Ms Patricia Hewitt and Mrs Margaret Beckett. Some day I shall devote a whole column to them, but not now.

To his credit, Mr Frank Dobson has never pretended to be anything other than Old Labour, though for how much longer he will remain one of its representatives in the Cabinet is a matter of speculation. As Stan Laurel used to say to Oliver Hardy: "This is a fine mess you've got us into."

Mr Dobson's mistake, so we are told, was unilaterally to extend the manifesto commitment to "ban tobacco advertising" to a prohibition against the sponsorship of all sporting events by tobacco companies. But was this extension not urged by Ms Tessa Jowell, the frighteningly entitled Minister for Public Health? Hush! Ms Jowell is acceptable, Mr. Dobson expendable; though whether she will persist in this state of grace remains to be seen. In times of trouble prime ministers tend to lash out, paying scant regard to considerations of political justice, still less of personal friendship. As I have observed before, politics is a rough old trade.

The week's events are a deserved - and not wholly unexpected - humiliation for those paladins of New Labour who fancied they could control the news as if they were manipulating a mixer tap. The paradox is that our most priggish prime minister since, I suppose, Neville Chamberlain has taken a decision which has shocked all the other prigs in his party and outside it. He would have been less priggish still if he had simply jettisoned the manifesto commitment, overruled Mr Dobson's extension of it (though how far Mr Blair was himself involved in this extension remains unclear) and behaved as a fully paid-up libertarian.

This would have been too much to ask of Mr Blair. He has never pretended to be a libertarian of any kind, or even much of a liberal for that matter. His appeal has always been dawnist or millenniarist, expressed in wordzak. I was never taken in, any more than I was by Harold Wilson in 1964. Accordingly I am not disillusioned by Mr Blair because I possessed no illusions in the first place. If this is cynicism, be it so, as the barristers like to put it. I prefer to call it healthy scepticism about politicians and their ways.

In the House on Wednesday Mr Blair relied on the old service maxim: "Bullshit baffles brains." Thus he brought in Europe at an early stage - always a useful thing to do - and referred learnedly to "derogations" from future agreements about the sponsorship of motor racing. He certainly seemed to baffle Mr William Hague, who was clearly embarrassed by his own party's dark past. "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" Mr Hague asked. "Yes, I have," Mr Blair replied. "And, what is more, I have gone voluntarily to the police in the form of the great Sir Patrick Neill to confess all, and have agreed to abide by his advice, which is more than your lot were ever prepared to do."

Mr Hague's performance at Question Time was not a great parliamentary disaster such as we have witnessed from other leaders of the opposition over the years. But it was very far from being a triumph. I kept wondering, to Mr Hague's disadvantage, how Mr Kenneth Clarke would have done in his place. On the afternoon, Mr Blair won on points.

But politics, rough though it may be, is not altogether like boxing. We can all read what Mr Blair said. It is in Hansard, plain as your nose. Or, rather,it is not plain at all. Thus MrBlair (or Mr Sawyer, acting for Mr Blair) did not go to Sir Patrick immediately the Government's policy was changed following Mr Blair's meeting with Mr Ecclestone, Mr Max Mosley and Mr David Ward. Whether this meeting should have taken place at all is a matter of opinion. On the one hand, a cat may look at a king, and a buyer and seller of television rights (what has made Mr Ecclestone a billionaire) may ask to see a prime minister. But, on the other hand, is his request granted only if he has previously donated a lot of cash to the prime minister's party?

Anyway, the chronology is clear. On 16 October Mr Blair met Mr Ecclestone and chums. On 4 November the policy was changed through a letter to European ministers proposing the exemption of Formula One racing from the prohibition against tobacco sponsorship. On 7 November Mr Sawyer wrote to Sir Patrick. He was moved to put pen to paper or tinkle the keyboard when the story leaked out.

For the moment we can leave aside whether it is proper for a government or a party (for Mr Sawyer is a party rather than a government functionary) to use Lord Nolan's successor as a kind of deus ex machina to get the Government out of a hole, much as the previous government used the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler. Mr Sawyer claimed to be writing, not because of Mr Ecclestone's original gift when Labour was in opposition, but because he had offered another one when Labour was in government.

In his answer Mr Blair made no reference to this proposed second donation, even though it was the pretext for Mr Sawyer's letter. This offer was made, if it was made at all - Mr Ecclestone now denies it was made - in July or August. At no point in his letter did Mr Sawyer either ask Sir Patrick what the party should do with the first donation or even reveal its size. It was Sir Patrick, off his own bat, who in effect instructed the party to give back the cash, which Mr Ecclestone says he will decline.

Mr Blair and his colleagues are now trying to muddy the waters by pointing to the Tories' record, which is pretty cold mashed potato by now, and by widening the dispute to include the funding of political parties in general. The second matter is one on which I possess strong views and a little knowledge. I shall write about it later on. Today Mr Blair would be best advised to publish an old-fashioned Blue Book setting out the course of events with more candour than he chose to display last week.