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Monday, March 22, 2010 

Intensely relaxed about getting filthy rich comes full circle.

As scandals go, Stephen Byers declaring to an undercover reporter that he was the equivalent of a "cab for hire", albeit for a sum which even most taxi drivers would blanch at demanding, isn't even close to the worst that Labour have suffered over the past 13 years. It's also hardly a repeat of "Cash for Questions", let alone the far more dramatic downfall of Jonathan Aitken. The closest comparison is in fact an almost identical operation by the Sunday Times last year, which successfully ensnared four Labour MPs with mouths equally as large as Byers'. In that instance they too also later said that they had played fast and loose with the truth of their fantastic ability to influence, although they didn't go so far in their attempt to don the sackcloth and ashes as Byers undoubtedly has.

The denials of Tesco and National Express also has echoes of that infamous scandal, or what would these days quite rightly be a non-scandal, the Profumo affair. As Mandy Rice-Davies didn't quite tell the court, they would [say that], wouldn't they? It's impossible to know without an investigation whether Byers was in fact telling the truth to begin with and then, either in an attack of conscience or fear that he'd been nobbled decided to retract what he'd said, but the attempt by Labour to shut the whole thing down, even after Byers referred himself to the parliamentary standards committee was never likely to put an end to things. The response tonight, to suspend Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon from the party while understandable, is only likely to infer guilt on all three. Equally Downing Street must be enjoying the schadenfreude, despite the damage to the party, of being able to cut down to size the two architects of the attempted coup earlier in the year.

This has though been a scandal waiting to happen; the only real surprise is that it's happened now, and that all three of those to most cover themselves in ordure have been or were Blairites. That might seem counter-intuitive: after all, while you can say plenty about the Brownites and their own use of the tactics of spin and smear, it's always been those on the Blair wing of the party that have found themselves at the centre of scandals. Why though, when parliament is so close to the end of term, were all three so willing to advertise themselves as available to lobbyists? There might be an element of all three being demob happy, as all are standing down at the election, hence their last chance to get some lucre before descending back into absolute obscurity, but it's not as if either Byers or Hewitt are broke: Byers is the non-executive chairman of two companies while Hewitt earns almost as much if not more than she does as an MP through her directorship at BT, having formerly been a trade minister, and slightly less through her role as a special consultant to Alliance Boots, having formerly been health secretary. Only Hoon has no such interests to declare, and he suggested that his quest for cash was down to having two children at university, and seeing as he was in cabinet when tuition fees were pushed through the Commons, he only has himself to blame.

As Justin astutely notes, corruption, lobbying and Mandelson's oft-quoted riff on how they were "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich" have all been hallmarks of New Labour, or most certainly the Blair side of the party since 1997. In the first term alone there was the Ecclestone affair, when very mysteriously it was decided the Formula 1 would be exempt from the rules banning tobacco sponsorship after little Bernie had donated a million to the party, then Lobbygate, when Derek Draper (yes, him) informed Greg Palast that he was "intimate" with the 17 people who "count". As alluded to above, it's odd that this has only just come up again now: after all, party conferences these days are just one long lobbying session, when charities and companies buy up fringe events and meetings, and as ex-ministers openly flog themselves to those that formerly were lobbying them, as most egregiously Hewitt and Lord Warner have done. Labour are hardly the only offenders though, as was illustrated when Cameron attempted earlier in the year to associate Gordon Brown with those charged with offences over their expenses, commenting at the time on lobbying. Back then we still didn't know about Lord Ashcroft's tax status, while we did know that Cameron has a "leader's group", where if you donate £50,000 to the party you get behind the scenes access to all the party's luminaries. At least you know what Labour's union backers want, and equally know that they very, very rarely get it, despite the millions donated.

Whether this will have any great effect on either support for Labour, or further disillusion those still to decide whether to vote or not is unclear. Labour most be hoping that the relatively quick suspension of three MPs already due to stand down will have next to no effect on those already likely to vote for them, but far more important is that the integrity of our politics has been once again brought into question. While the lowest point has probably been reached, thanks to the expenses scandal, where it was everyone's money involved rather than that of politicians personally profiting thanks to their influence, it's those that are politically engaged who this time are most likely to be disgusted. Even then, it's not the money involved, or that any of three would besmirch their entirely spotless reputations (snigger), but the downright stupidity and way in which they walked into such a trap. Politicians are human, something we sometimes fail to make allowances for, but hopefully not completely ignorant and lacking in inquisitiveness. The Sunday Times/Dispatches scoop suggests otherwise.

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This is great stuff, I'm a young-ish democratic socialist and editor of TMP Online (broad left political blog) and would like to know if you would be interested in being an irregular contributor to it?

I'm fine with posts being mirrored but simply don't have the time to write anything else specifically without prior warning.

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