The unusual suspects

Rupert Murdoch, Bernie Ecclestone, the Hindujas, Berlusconi, and now Lakshmi Mittal: can these reall

There has been an edgy note in the voice of respectable opinion for a good month now. Men of moderate temperament are struggling to handle the uncomfortable thought that Blairism is bent. You can feel their pain and see the strain.

Introducing a report on Enron's bankrolling of new Labour on the Six O'Clock News, Huw Edwards broke the first rule of journalism. Wasn't this story, "complicated?" he asked the BBC's political correspondent, Mark Mardell. Indeed it was, agreed a head-shaking Mardell from the gloom outside parliament. And this business with Arthur Andersen, continued Edwards, wouldn't you say it was pretty damn "complicated" as well? Right again, Huw, said Mardell. Very, very complicated. Positively labyrinthine.

By the time they had finished implying that the Enron-Andersen affair was so impenetrable that the viewers should prefer turning over to befuddling their tiny minds with the facts, the slot was at an end and Edwards was ready to move to the football.

In the Independent, David Aaronovitch warned that those who investigated corruption were reviving the nihilism of Weimar. If politics is a racket, what comes next? Post-fascist plutocrats in the Berlusconi mould, "people with shining eyes and large bank balances, who speak the language of disillusion with party politics". Aaronovitch attacked the "rank hypocrisy" of newspapers whose editors accepted knighthoods from Thatcher. A leader-writer in the Guardian took up the theme. There was "no smoking gun", he/she cried. The real scandal was that the Murdoch press was "lambasting" the Prime Minister for helping Lakshmi Mittal, a foreigner who paid virtually no tax to the exchequer. The Sun had made "no such protests" when Tony Blair lobbied the Italian government on behalf of Murdoch, a foreigner whose newspapers use the services of the Cayman Islands to dodge corporation tax.

I have lost count of, and patience with, the commentators who have assured us that Britain is not as corrupt as Italy, while displaying no stomach for the fight to keep Britain that way. If they reflected that Berlusconi is now Blair's ally in a common struggle against the rights of European workers, they would perhaps be shamed into understanding that the rotten state of Italy's rigged democracy is not a card that government supporters can flourish.

As for the rest, Aaronovitch and the Guardian are undoubtedly right to suggest that scientists looking for the hypocrisy gene should sample Rupert Murdoch's DNA. Journalists can't be taken seriously unless they are prepared to condemn the deceits of the media and their owners' extortionist power to blackmail government. But I think we already knew that you sell your soul wholesale when you join News International. The awkward question remains: what does it say about the wreck of the British labour movement that the PM will happily work for Murdoch and Mittal?

"Smoking guns" may not be on display in these and related cases. Those who demand their production should have the honesty to accept that, at most crimes scenes, only detectives can find them. All we can see clearly is a pattern of offending behaviour.

Murdoch is not just a tax dodger who leaves his duped readers to pick up his bills, he is also the leader of the anti-union vested interest in Britain. He switched to Blair when John Major was on his way out. Blair gave him many favours. Among them was a promise to abandon his public duties and badger the then left-of-centre Italian government to drop its objections to Murdoch breaking into its market. Downing Street first tried to cover up the affair. Then it claimed that Blair was backing a "British" company. When it was pointed out that Murdoch was a patriotic Australian who abandoned his country to become an American, a Downing Street spokesman fought to keep a straight face as he mumbled that Tone was trying to turn Murdoch into a supporter of the European Union.

Bernie Ecclestone was a Tory supporter and donor. He gave £1m to new Labour when Major was on the way out. He demanded a private meeting with Blair, at which the Prime Minister agreed to exclude Formula One from a ban on tobacco advertising. Frank Dobson, the then health secretary, was not consulted or informed. Those of us who know that in Blairite London it is better to admit to sheep-shagging than smoking looked on as the Prime Minister came to the aid of Ecclestone and, by extension, the tobacco barons.The smoke from the guns in this instance induced lung cancer.

Blair, on the advice of the unelected and unaccountable Lord Irvine, decided to admit nothing. Ecclestone's lawyers threatened Tom Baldwin, the Sunday Telegraph reporter who broke the story, with a writ if he printed the truth. As the political class has abolished the ancient right to silence, and allowed a refusal to answer questions to be taken as evidence against the citizen, the same standards must apply to its members when they embrace Sicilian values.

As with Murdoch and Ecclestone, so with Enron and Mittal. Enron gave new Labour £36,000. New Labour allowed it to take over the Wessex Water monopoly, and then pleased the fantastically corrupt energy company by dropping official opposition to building gas-fired power stations. (Is this sequence of events too complicated, by the way? Am I losing anyone? No? Fantastic!) The Prime Minister's official spokesperson dismissed all inquires as the "great Enron yawnathon". Conspiracy theories "foundered on the one point that people could not get passed, however hard they tried - that in the last parliament energy policy had gone against the interests of gas". The official spokesperson is too feeble-minded for a demanding job. The "one point" of the Enron scandal was that, for much of the last parliament, energy policy had indeed gone against the interests of gas. Then Enron got its claws into new Labour and, with the help of the London embassy of Bill Clinton - the same Clinton who had begged Enron to fund his 1996 presidential campaign - the policy was changed.

This howling economy with the truth was mild in comparison to the official line on Mittal. At the time of going to press, usually well-mannered lobby correspondents are trembling with incredulous fury. Hardly a sentence they have heard from Downing Street has stood up. They were told that Mittal's LNM was a "British company". It's nothing of the sort. LNM employs a handful of people in London and its profits go either to Amsterdam or, in the Murdoch manner, to the tax havens of the Dutch Antilles. True, Mittal has a home in London and can vote in British elections. The Guardian discovered that he has the rights but not the responsibilities of the rest of us because of a loophole in the law which allows him to avoid personal tax. In opposition, Labour denounced the scam as "indefensible", but in office, what with one thing and another, the party hasn't got round to reforming the abuse.

Blair's letter to the Romanian prime minister was presented as a note congratulating him on a done deal. The line didn't stand 30 seconds of scrutiny. The Welsh Nationalists and the Sunday Telegraph showed that Blair intervened at the precise moment when the Romanians were thinking of selling their steelworks to Mittal's French rivals. Blair's letter was taken as an endorsement of Mittal's bona fides. The Prime Minister, the Observer continued, couldn't have injured the interests of Labour-voting steelworkers more grievously if he had tried. Blair was helping a billionaire whose American subsidiary was calling on George W Bush to impose tariffs on steel from Britain and elsewhere.

Put these indictments together, and do you begin to see the outlines of a prima facie case? Britain doesn't have a legislature or judiciary that can or will take it further; but with a transparent polemical trick, government supporters use new Labour's failure to give the British the constitutional checks of a modern democracy as the leading argument for the defence.

They can't bring themselves to accept that, in these degraded times, smoking guns are found only when journalists get lucky or the united front of the Downing Street court cracks. Bitterness among the attendant lords of the Brown camp produced the home loan scandal, which led to Peter Mandelson's first resignation. He resigned yet again after Jack Straw selectively leaked the particulars of the favourable treatment given to the Hinduja brothers, new Labour friends who, I shouldn't have to add, stand accused of being participants in India's greatest bribery scandal.

Behind the scenes in all of these unpleasantnesses lurks Lord Levy. He is Blair's chief fundraiser. He was rewarded with a peerage and the right to be the Prime Minister's special envoy in the Middle East. He is not answerable to the House of Lords because he isn't a minister. He is not answerable to the select committees of the House of Commons because he is a Lord. If I saw Blair at one of his parties for donors, I guess the correspondence between the quid and the pro quo wouldn't be too hard to discern.

Perhaps suspicion is unfair. Ministers believe so, and are volcanic with rage about the media that are destroying "the trust" between the governors and the governed. When they calm themselves, they whisper to me that no one in new Labour checks business donors to see if they are criminals or tax dodgers or union bashers or abusers of human rights and the environment. That they are in business is enough to recommend them to Blair. State-funding of political parties will not free him from the dogma of the 1990s bubble that business, any business, is the sole source of worth and righteousness.

There may be corruption in one or more of Blair's dealings with the above. I don't know and don't really care. All I do know is that the remnants of the British centre left cannot cling to their comfort blanket while they are led by a man who backs Murdoch, Mittal, Enron, Andersen, Ecclestone and the Hindujas.

Gordon Brown would be better. David Blunkett would be better. Charles Clarke would be better. My bloody gran would be better. Face it, he's got to go. Let's drain the swamp.

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The unusual suspects