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23 March 2010

The lobbying scandal: bad for all of Labour

This damages both "Blairites" and "Brownites".

By James Macintyre

Sitting in the House of Commons, it is hard to know what could happen to damage the reputation of this place further, following the Tory financial sleaze of the 1990s, the cross-party expenses scandal and now the lobbying affair, in which former Labour ministers have sought to use their supposed influence in a way that, in the words of Geoff Hoon, “frankly makes money”.

For now at least, the focus is on the damage to Labour, and doubtless the incumbent government will be hit harder by the general and deep sense of alienation that the world outside feels about this place.

There are mixed views to be heard amid the chatter about Labour’s fortunes. Some say that the fact that the three former ministers involved in the latest revelations — Hoon, Stephen Byers and Patricia Hewitt — are all “Blairites”, and that Hoon and Hewitt were behind January’s “coup that never was” against Gordon Brown, vindicates the Prime Minister. It is certainly true that Hoon and Byers have long represented the worst of technocratic, ideology-free politics sometimes associated with “Blairism”.

But there are at least two flaws in this thesis. The first is that other rebels — notably Charles Clarke, a man of principle, if not to everyone’s taste — have not been caught up in the scandal, and thus Peter Mandelson and Andrew Adonis are surely right to dismiss Byers, who claimed to have influence over them, as a fantasist.

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The second point is that the damage will be to Labour as a whole, not just one faction. There are signs that the leadership knows this. Anyone who bumped into the No 10 spokesman touring the lobby here today would have noticed the genuinely dismayed look on his face when describing the allegations.

Downing Street is denying claims that the decisive expulsion of the former ministers was “revenge” by Brown. “If anything, there was caution about the fact that it would be seen through that prism,” an aide said.

The Tories, of course, are gleeful. It does look very bad for Labour, as the sense — fair or not — that the party in office is running out of steam develops tinges of the 1990s.

Not for the first time, however, the only certain conclusion is that there will be a terribly low turnout at the polls on 6 May, after an election campaign that will excite politicians and journalists much more than the wider public.

By way of a postscript to this grim tale, hats off to my holidaying colleague Mehdi Hasan for getting there first with a pretty comprehensive takedown of two of the culprits.

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