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Blair’s Black Friday

How Tony Blair must wish he had stuck to that agreement with Gordon Brown and left office in 2004. He could at least have claimed success of a kind after the Iraqi elections, and then claim he’d laid the ground for Labour’s third election victory. But by hanging on and on, things got worse and worse. And last week, they reached rock bottom.
The sight of the Prime Minister scuttling off abroad after being interviewed by the police over cash for peerages, pausing only to take “full responsibility” for the abandoning of police investigations into the BAE slush fund, was deeply damaging. Spin doctors are supposed to bury bad news, not their leader.
It’s widely assumed in Westminster that the government carefully choreographed last week’s announcements so that the PM’s encounter with PC Plod and the dropping of the Serious Fraud Office investigation into the al Yamamah arms deals, would be eclipsed by the report into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Also buried was the controversial decision to expand Stanstead and Heathrow airports (to hell with the environment) plus the closure of 2,500 post offices.
Well, it certainly looked like news management out of the Alistair Campbell book of spin. He would have known that the papers would all splash pictures of Diana and Dodi on the Friday front pages – because they sell copies – rather than Tony Blair and the police, even though the Stevens inquiry confirmed what everyone already knew: that Diana’s death was a tragic accident accident.
But the real car crash was in Number Ten. I half thought it really might have all been coincidental, so damaging has been the concatenation of negative news events on Blair’s Black Friday. Any sensible spin-doctor would have advised the PM to avoid trying to bury quite so many pieces of bad news under the late Princess of Wales. Better too, for the PM to face the music, here in Britain, rather than disappear to Brussels and then the Middle East away from press and parliament.
The PM’s impromptu comments on cash-for-peerages, delivered from Brussels, sounded like those of a politician who had fled into exile. A kind of Downing Street Ronnie Biggs. The PM told the media that all those millionaires who had been secretly loaning him money were nominated for peerages, not because of charitable work or service to the community, but “party service”.
Really? The property developer, Sir David Garrard, a loyal and industrious Labour activist? Curry King Sir Gulam Noon, licking envelopes and canvassing in South London? Constituency delegate Dr Chai Patel speaking haltingly in favour of resolutions 46 and 32a at conference? Hardly.
Of course, these aren’t the only way in which you can work for the Labour Party, but it is kind of expected that you would show your face, or at least become a member. Or were these businessmen – had they been ennobled – really intending to enter parliament on behalf of the Labour Party? To take the whip and start taking on the workload of working peers? I don’t think so.
This was bad enough, but to combine cash-for-honours with cash-for-Saudi Princes must represent a new benchmark for inept media management. It looked as if the Prime Minister was defending the giving of bribes, for that is the issue at stake in the Al Yamamah arms deal, a £40 billion scam in which Mark Thatcher and the imprisoned Tory minister Jonathan Aitken had walk-on roles.
There is little doubt that British Aerospace, now BAE, was responsible for handing out tens of millions in “commissions” to Saudi intermediaries, such as the louche Prince Turki bin Nasser, a leading member of the Saudi Arabian ruling royal family. The BBC’s Money Programme revealed two years ago that BAE had been showing its gratitude by purchasing a £170, 000 Rolls Royce for Prince Turki’s wife’s birthday; a £200,000 wedding video for his daughter’s wedding; and a three month holiday for all the family costing BAE £2m.
Now, a lot of people in the commeercial world shake their heads and say: ‘well, that’s what you have to do to get the business’. Perhaps they are right, though the law says something rather different. The Serious Fraud Office spend two years investigating the scams, and intended to follow the money into the Swiss banking world. That was until the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, announced that it wouldn’t be in the national interest to do so. The fact that orders for 72 BAE Typhoon Eurofighter jets was about to go to the French had, of course, nothing to do with it.
According to Downing St. it was all about the security of Britain. We cannot afford to pursue the corrupt Saudi princes because it would antagonise an ally in the war against terrorism, and could place British interest in jeopardy. “The strategic interest comes first” according to the PM.
Well, if our national security is dependent on this corrupt and medieval monarchy then we are in a bad way, for they are the principle benefactors of the extreme Islamist Wahhabin sect which gave rise to Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden and most of the 9/11 plane bombers were Saudi passport holders. Saudi money finances the madrassas that indoctrinate young Muslims across the Middle East.
But now the House of Saud is our rock in the fight against international terrorism. As for the safety of British interests, we also learned on Friday from the former top diplomat, Carne Ross, that the British government knew that the threat to British interests from Saddam Hussein’s WMD was hogwash. It led the former Tory Prime Minister, Sir John Major, to launch an assault on Tony Blair from the airwaves by demanding a proper independent inquiry.
For the leader who presided over the years of Tory sleaze to be giving Tony Blair a lecture in ethics might sound rich, and indeed, it was. However, Major can at least say he was never interviewed by police pursuing a fraud investigation, nor did he go to war on a false pretext in Iraq. The first Gulf War was all about expelling Saddam from Kuwait, which he had invaded in violation of international law.
Can Tony Blair recover from all this? Of course not. Everything the PM does now is doomed because of the collapse in his moral authority and personal credibility. That’s his lookout. The real question is whether there will be anything left of Labour for Gordon Brown to inherit.
Number Ten “rogue elements” made clear their intentions to deprive him of any moral dividend by briefing the Sunday Press that the Chancellor had been doing a bit of cash for honours himself, by pushing cronies Wilf Stevenson, head of the Smith Institute and Sir Ronald Cohen, of the Social Investment Task force. Mr Brown was incensed.
He rushed a statement not quite denying that he had pushed his pals, informally, in the direction of the Lords and insisting that he had known nothing about loans. Protesting too much? Perhaps – though neither of his protégés had actually made loans to Labour having chosen conventional donations.
But the affair shows that the Blairites, Peter Mandelson et al, are not going to let Brown walk into Number Ten over the PM’s body. They are out to get him. This is personal.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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