Quentin Davies is MP for Grantham and Stamford and was Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland during the last parliament.
Imagine the reaction here – especially the reaction of the eurosceptic tabloids – if it were discovered that Italian Senators had bought their way into the upper chamber of the Italian Parliament. “Typical” they would write, “we all know Italian politics is utterly corrupt”. Of course these benighted and wretched foreigners – the Daily Mail and the Sun would use different, monosyllabic language – could hardly be expected to observe the pure standards of public conduct we have evolved here after centuries of Parliamentary life.
As I said in my Question to the Prime Minister on 15 March “Does the Prime Minister share my revulsion at the fact that this is the only country in the world that calls itself a democracy where it appears that one can buy one’s way into the legislature simply by giving a lot of money to one of the three major parties?” Tony Blair responded with a characteristic deflection “we are the Party and the Government who introduced transparency into party funding.”
Had I known at that moment of Jack Dromey’s revelations (they only came out later that day on “Newsnight” in a programme that started with a clip of my exchange with Tony Blair), I would no doubt have made some immediate riposte about “transparency”. Repackaging gifts as “loans” so they do not have to be disclosed hardly fits the description of “transparency”.
The whole loans ploy is in itself highly suspect. If the loans are not on commercial terms – that is to say if they would not have been available from commercial lenders on the same conditions – then it is clear that they should have been disclosed under electoral law. But if they are “on commercial terms” and therefore could have been raised from financial institutions why on earth wasn’t this done in the first place? That would have avoided arousing any personal expectations or creating any suspicion of corruption.
What do we do now? I detect a universal commitment to clean up our act (indeed as I sat down after asking my question to Tony Blair I caught the eye of a Labour Cabinet Minister opposite who sent me an unmistakable signal of support).
I welcome the police investigation. Obviously, it must be thorough and fearless – and be seen to be both. Only once it and any judicial process that ensues are complete, can the Select Committee investigate – but that should happen as soon as possible thereafter – and they in turn will face a great challenge in being genuinely rigorous and politically impartial.
If political parties can no longer count on corrupt contributions, and if, as David Cameron wisely suggested, maximum limits are set for political contributions, will that create a funding crisis for political parties? Is the longer term solution to provide state funding for political parties? I am personally prepared to vote for modest sums strictly for policy research for Opposition parties (on the basis that the civil service is available to the Government for their policy research). That is the principle on which the present system of “Short Money” is based. But taxpayers’ money to pay for spin doctors, for campaigning and for political advertising? Certainly not in my book. And I don’t think the public would wear it for a moment. On the contrary, I believe we should tighten the rules to prevent a government in power or opposition parties receiving “Short Money” from misusing public money for these things.
Of course all the spin doctors, advertising gurus and political PR firms in the country will now be lobbying their current paymasters to get their hands on taxpayers’ money so as to replace the proceeds of the sale of peerages. They should not succeed. Politics will get a far better reputation in our country if our dependence on spin doctors and advertising is reduced.
For those who think there might be dire political consequences, I am tolerably certain that neither spin doctors nor advertising campaigns have ever made a difference to an election result in my time – except perhaps to reduce the Conservative vote even below what it would otherwise have been at the past three elections. The Conservative Party have no sound ulterior motive for not taking the high road.
And if politics becomes just a little more austere and a little more straightforward and political dialogue becomes a little more focused on real records and real policies rather than on soft-focus image-manufacturing techniques, our democracy will emerge a great deal healthier for it.