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Tuesday, November 27, 2007 

Abrahams sacrifices Labour.

To misquote Lady Bracknell, to get caught out over improper donations once is unfortunate, to get caught twice seems like carelessness. To be strictly accurate, it isn't even the second time the Labour party has been caught out: it's more like the fourth, coming after the Ecclestone and Mittal affairs in the earlier days of Blair's reign. Gordon Brown and the government at large must be wondering what on earth is going to go tits up next: perhaps Ruth Kelly will be exposed as having a second life as this generation's Miss Whiplash?

More damaging than the accusations and the returning of the money to David Abrahams might well be the very bringing back of the sobriquet "sleaze", especially screaming out from the front page of the Daily Mail, the paper that Brown has done so much to attempt to woo. If Blair's position prior to the whole loans for peerages debacle was highly damaged, the impact of the police investigation was terminal. Brown's attempt to draw a line under all of that through his widely parodied "Age of Change" has hit the buffers even sooner than after Peter Mandelson commented that New Labour was "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich."

As so often with this government, when it gets caught out it acts like a child caught with his hands in his mother's purse, except not many children would then appoint a Lord to investigate what actually led up to the shutting of fingers in the clasp. No one, it would seem, apart from Peter Watt and perhaps his predecessors as general secretary of the Labour party knew that Abrahams was donating money through up to four intermediaries, even though both Gordon Brown himself and Hilary Benn declined to receive donations from Janet Kidd for their respective campaigns for leader and deputy leader, having inquired into her background as she wasn't known to either. Benn subsequently did accept a donation from Abrahams once he personally signed the cheque, but Harriet Harman wasn't as inquisitive, accepting a donation for £5,000 at face value. Her position really ought to be untenable, especially if the Tories are correct in alleging she didn't actually take it until 2 weeks after the campaign had ended.

In fairness to Brown, he did all that could reasonably be expected of him at this morning's press conference. He apologised, admitted that the donations were unlawful and that they would be returned, said that he might well have met Abrahams at some point, although he "couldn't remember" talking about donations at any of those meetings and that changes would be needed. Thing is, we've heard it all before over so many other matters. The talks about changes to the party funding regime have been mooted on previous occasions, and the most recent attempt failed after the Tories attempted to cut the links between Labour and the unions, with all the other matters also falling by the wayside. When the Tories have Lord Ashcroft pouring money into the marginal constituencies, even though he himself has questions to answer about his tax status (Private Eye in the latest issue suggested he might be one of an increasing number of businessmen who in effect pay no tax whatsoever thanks to their offshore interests) they have much to gain and little to lose from the collapse of the talks, especially when the right-wing press has such a loathing of Labour's union links.

Doubtless, numerous hacks will now be scrutinising David Abrahams' movements over the last few years. His explanation that he passed his donations through others so that he wouldn't be treated like a criminal for donating to a political party would stand up rather more if he hadn't in the words of Nick Robinson "used different names, different ages, been deselected as a parliamentary candidate and been involved in rows about the planning system." The one saving grace for Labour is that so far there has been no evidence presented to suggest that Abrahams has personally gained from his donations; unlike with cash for peerages, where it was always incredulous that all those that had given secret loans had been been recommended for peerages and that the two things weren't connected, this at the moment appears to be a general secretary taking the money and not asking any questions. Where it will change into serious sleaze is if it turns out that there was far wider recognition of where the donations really were coming from - and at the moment the photograph of Blair at his constituency with Abrahams in close proxomity is the nearest thing to a smoking gun. If a similar photograph of Brown turns up, despite his admittance that he might of met him, then it will become very serious indeed.

The most astonishing thing is that it's been allowed to happen. At what point does a breaking of the law, even if we believe Watt's story that he simply didn't check, become less serious than another breach? Few will disagree with David Cameron's observation that despite all the safeguards that the government has meant to have setup, it seems itself to routinely breach them. With faith in politics at such a low, and Brown the latest leader to declare that he would be different, this just once again reinforces the belief that "they're all the same." While the last week has seen many comparisons with the slow death of the Major government, it hasn't been widely acknowledged that it wasn't just Black Wednesday but also what happened after then that destroyed it and gradually turned it into a laughing stock, with the sleaze allegations, then uncovered by the Guardian being denied and challenged by the Tories. This time round it's the Mail on Sunday and with Labour owning up, but the effect remains the same. It's the image of a government not being in control of events, and constantly on the back foot. The only consolation is that the Tories are still not making the huge gains you would expect, Labour instead just falling behind. It's not yet critical, but any more unexpected disasters and Brown might well be permanently tainted.

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