The Scandals of New Labour, Part I


George Bush’s Freedom Posse looks a bit strung-out. Only John Howard and Tony Blair remain grouped with the leader, and all three are carrying heavy weight.

Given Howard’s invincible ignorance about his own Government’s doings Wheat Board matters notably it’s hard to fancy he’s on top of Iraqi events.


Warren Harding’s watch is usually taken as the US presidency’s nadir. But Bush’s handlers, when looking back to Mission Accomplished, must be glad Harding came and went before Gallup invented opinion polls.

But Tony Blair pursued by Scotland Yard detectives over New Labour’s finances, and desperately blocking Serious Fraud Office inquiries which might expose eminent British arms dealers has fallen furthest and fastest.

Bush didn’t begin with an all-conquering mandate. The actual majority, which preferred Al Gore, always thought Bush would be useless, and were only amazed at the scale of his incompetence. Howard has his worshippers but they’re hardly a majority either. Numerous Australians would move to a better electoral hole if they knew one. Even the worshippers realise, if crossly, that many good citizens loathe Howard and always have.

Tony Blair, though, is a maker of electoral landslides two genuine, one slightly fortuitous who started with fans at both red and blue ends of the spectrum. In the forests of the tabloid night, feral beasts purred when he tickled their bellies: the conservative columnist Max Hastings declared all the British nation’s classes were at ease with their charismatic young leader. Even the French who usually say that only the Queen speaks their language properly joined in, rating his accent as not bad. Year on year, the Party wallowed in his wake. But the latest polling shows Blair is Labour’s deadliest liability, and a clear majority dislike him still more than they did a year ago.

To people sick of sleaze, Blair promised a new, scrupulous, even idealistic regime. The British now feel like householders who, having replaced their decrepit rottweiler with a pedigree spaniel, find it bailing them up in their own kitchen. While taking increasing liberties for himself and his cronies, Blair has launched an attack with no modern precedent on the civil liberties of those who elected him.

How and why all this happened will require much investigation, if we’re spared. For now, we can only keep updating the list of scandals.

The two big ones are Cash for Honours (not just gongs, like the Order of Oz; these carry voting seats in the legislature) and the Saudi Arabia Eurofighter-Typhoon boondoggle (with African and other sub-boondoggles).

Blair’s ideal armour was first scratched in 1997 with the curious case of Formula 1, the motor-sport fief of Bernie Ecclestone, then lucratively providing high-speed hoardings for tobacco ads. Considered most efficient for hooking young smokers, these could not be televised due to European Community regulations except as coverage of Ecclestone’s Grand Prix races. The Commission called on EC members to block this carcinogenic loophole.

Blair’s Public Health Minister, Tessa Jowell, resisted; whereupon, it turned out that in her capacity as Mrs David Mills she was wife to one of Ecclestone’s principal lawyers. (Mills’s expertise is tax-reduction, and nobody loathes tax like F1’s boss.) Also that the highly non-socialist Ecclestone had donated a million pounds to Labour.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Loud strife ensued, ending with F1 getting an eight-year loophole extension (Jowell wanted 10) and Labour returning the donation. But what journalists found spectacular was the Prime Minister’s dauntless innocence. However interrogated, he couldn’t see that anything looked bad.

Uneasily, people decided on a one-off misunderstanding from which New Labour might learn. In hindsight, Blair seems to have concluded that, for him, there could never be tight corners: just opportunities to burnish his halo in circumstances not yet met with. If this prospect was real, it didn’t survive the overconfident prodigals in his Cabinet.

Peter Mandelson, after secretly borrowing £373,000 from his Government colleague Gerry Robinson, was ejected from the Department of Trade and Industry in 1998 (its officials were investigating certain aspects of Robinson’s business). Brought swiftly back as Northern Ireland Secretary, he re-quit in 2001 when involved in the process which provided two arms-dealing Indian billionaires, the Hinduja brothers, with UK passports.

David Blunkett’s term as Home Secretary ended over special treatment for a passport required by the nanny of his lover (he was a gone goose without her being publisher of the Tory Spectator, but the social-climbing overtones generated extra contempt). Blair swiftly recycled him as Minister for Pensions, but Blunkett forgot he had meanwhile invested in a company which might bid for public business. His second defenestration appears to be terminal.

Mandelson once said, ‘New Labour is intensely relaxed about people becoming stinking rich.’ Well, okay but not if politicians hang-out obsessively with the gamier rich, and seem intensely relaxed about exchanging favours with them. New Labour peccadilloes usually come with a stout denial of wrongdoing quite often true as to law, it rarely meets Burke’s rule that ‘It is not what a lawyer tells me I may do; but what humanity, reason, and justice tell me I ought to do.’

No law prohibits extensive socialising with a tax-dodging Italian politician who revives the style of Mussolini who has timed-out fraud trials by abusing official powers, and broken every promise to loosen his counter-democratic stranglehold on Italy’s media. Maybe Blair the lawyer was able to advise himself and Jowell on this. And Jowell’s husband David Mills now being tried for corruption alongside Berlusconi surely concurred.

Probably their joint knowledge of Italy’s rickety legal system will enable both to walk free (it would have happened already were Berlusconi still in power). But it’s improbable, even if Berlusconi wins the Nobel Peace Prize, that the British will think him a suitable chum for their own Prime Minister.

Cash for honours is more dangerous by far, because much evidence suggests that some person or persons did things which were wrong, indeed criminal. At issue is whether Scotland Yard’s Assistant Commissioner Yates can uncover such culprits and if so, whether official prosecutors will take action.

Yates and his team have interviewed 90 people with a brio Blair’s friends think excessive. Blunkett, writing for Murdoch’s Sun, called it ‘theatrical’ and Jowell was ‘puzzled’ about the 6:30am doorstep arrest of the Downing Street aide Ruth Turner. (It’s what cops do when they suspect a cover-up, and for many customers the call is earlier.)

The legal situation is in some ways clear. If a political Party awards an honour in exchange for cash or kind, a criminal offence occurs whether it’s just a riband to stick in your coat, or confers the power of voting in the House of Lords and heraldic rights to hang territorial reference on your surname.

Honours is
the essence of New Labour, revealing the means this curious organism uses to sustain itself and its policies.

But the Eurofighter scandal is Blair’s legacy from High Thatcherism: here we have public and private interests seamlessly intertwined, and laced with Middle Eastern skulduggery Old England, one might say, sure to persist whatever New Labour’s fate, and confident of support from a Prime Minister soon to join the jobmarket (if not so soon as his colleagues would like).

More on that next week.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.