Plus ca change ... Tony's friends will be all right

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FOR SOME TIME the impression has been spreading, like an infected patch on the skin or some even more serious condition, that Mr Tony Blair's government more or less resembles Mr John Major's - if anything, more so. There is the feeling that favours are given to friends, posts to benefactors, peerages to those who fall into either category or both. There is, in short, a whiff of corruption in the air.

It is hard to say when the scales fell from the eyes, when there was a temptation to quote Robert Browning: "Never glad confident morning again!" Different people became disillusioned at different times. For some, it was the affair of Mr Bernie Ecclestone and his racing cars; for others, the case of Mr Derek Draper, Mr Roger Liddle and the sole 17 persons who counted for anything in this land. For myself, I was not specially illusioned in the first place. I had, after all, lived through Harold Wilson in 1964 and subsequent years.

James Callaghan, by the way, sniffed the atmosphere that had built up around Downing Street. When he became prime minister, he resolved to do something to disperse it. Of the success he attained, estimates vary. Shall we see Mr Gordon Brown, if he arrives at No 10, trying to establish the rule of the saints? From the evidence he has supplied so far, it is doubtful, to say the least. He has as many cronies as the Prime Minister.

Even though I possessed no illusions about Mr Blair's intention, still less his capacity, to inaugurate a more honest style of government, there was one episode which encapsulated the mode he intended to follow. This was the appointment of Mr Charles (now Lord) Falconer as Solicitor-General.

We all realise that finding good or even moderately competent law officers is among any prime minister's most difficult tasks. Leading barristers no longer wish to serve in Parliament, partly because they would lose money, partly (what amounts to the same thing) because barristers' clerks, a tyrannical breed who combine the functions of office manager with show- business agent, refuse to give briefs to those young members of their chambers who have political ambitions. It might help resolve the problem to place the law officers for England and Wales on the same footing as those for Scotland, and not require them to be members of Parliament. Or the titles Attorney- and Solicitor-General might be taken literally, and solicitors appointed to both.

Lord Falconer is a capable lawyer and, by all accounts, an affable chap. But the reason for his appointment lay not so much in his possession of these excellent qualities as in his long-standing friendship with the Prime Minister. To the People's Party he was a stranger. When he was ennobled and promoted to the Cabinet Office at the last reshuffle, his successor was Mr Ross Cranston, the new member for Dudley North, an Australian who used to be a professor. I do not know what he is like on his legs in court, but he is certainly a distinguished academic lawyer. Why was he not appointed in the first place rather than Lord Falconer?

So I could go on, giving more examples relating to friendship, funds or both. Lord Neill, in the fifth, highly lucid report on party funding of the Committee on Standards in Public Life published last week, quotes without comment but presumably without dissent the following passage from a paper: "A number of businessmen who have been given key government roles are on the [Labour] party's list of major financial backers ... Lord Puttnam, the film producer who has been made head of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts; Lord Sainsbury, recently appointed a minister at the Department of Trade and Industry; and Christopher Haskins, chairman of Northern Foods and the Government's Better Regulation Taskforce. Sainsbury, Haskins and Puttnam, plus ... Melvyn Bragg and Ruth Rendell, all owe their peerages to Tony Blair."

I take the view that, if the Conservatives can have the admirable PD James as a life peeress, Labour can have Ruth Rendell. As for Lord Bragg, he is as much entitled to a peerage as, say, the late Huw Wheldon would have been. But some other recent appointments are distinctly on the bizarre side. There is a record producer and a rather odd maker of youth programmes for television. Most of them I should cross the street to avoid, though naturally not my solicitor, formerly Mr Andrew Phillips, now Lord Phillips of Sudbury. He deserves his place as a Liberal Democrat peer for his numerous good works. The reasons for the appointment of some other peers from the same party are less evident.

This whole question will be of much concern in the next few months. We know that the speaking and voting rights of hereditary peers are to be abolished. I could not find anything in Lady Jay's speech on Wednesday about the position of those members of the Royal Family who are hereditary peers. It has been suggested that they will be treated as a protected species, like bats, or adders. We shall see. There is then to be a Royal Commission to decide what to do next, though the manifesto had promised a committee of both Houses instead. We also know the Government believes that the crossbench element should be retained and that no one party should possess a majority in the Lords. This means that, to the 510 life peers remaining after the great expulsion, there will be added 30 new Labour peers.

At this point I become puzzled by what Lady Jay said: that Mr Blair had announced he would "no longer have the sole power of patronage in appointing peers". He was "proposing, under the new, transitional arrangements, to reduce his patronage, to ensure that no one political party should seek a majority" and "to maintain an independent crossbench element". But successive prime ministers have already diluted their patronage by offering nominations in certain honours lists to the leaders of other parties. Lord Jenkins and, later, Mr Paddy Ashdown have been notably successful in pressing the claims of their favourite sons or daughters, often persons of the utmost insignificance. Will Mr Blair offer Mr Ashdown and Mr William Hague separate rights of nomination? Or a committee? Or what?

Lord Neill has certainly worried Mr Blair with his proposals for equal time and equal cash for both sides in referendums. Already he is being blackguarded by Mr Blair's henchmen. The Government's neutrality, however - assuming it accepts this proposal - will not prevent Mr Blair from taking a firm position as leader of his party rather than as prime minister.

The proposals on peerages are less burdensome. The renamed Honours Scrutiny Committee is to examine the case of everyone who has donated pounds 5,000 or more in the previous five years and "satisfy itself that the donation has made no contribution to the nomination". Additionally the committee should "ensure that an undue preponderance of honours is not conferred on those who have directly or indirectly made donations".

Well! This is rather like the Jewish admissions quota maintained surreptitiously by our leading public schools. Lord Neill seems to be saying that buying peerages is perfectly all right provided not too much of it is seen to go on. And chums such as Lord Falconer will still be able to rise effortlessly.

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