Magazine article The Spectator

Is the Cabinet Secretary about to Warn Tony about Cherie?

Magazine article The Spectator

Is the Cabinet Secretary about to Warn Tony about Cherie?

Article excerpt

For more than 100 years one overriding principle has governed British public life: the fastidious separation of public and private interests. Those who have worked for the state - whether in the armed forces, the Civil Service, as MPs, or in some other way - have never used their office for private gain or any other selfish purpose. These principles were first explicitly set out at the time of the Gladstonian reforms of the public service in the mid-19th century and have been adhered to since under all governments, whether Liberal, Labour or Conservative. There have of course been many individual lapses from this high ideal; but the system itself has been extremely robust, surviving throughout the 20th century.

This special idea of strong, disinterested public service is now in rapid decay. There have been two principal aspects of disintegration. The first manifested itself with a ferocious attack by a new political class on the traditional institutions of the state. This process was extremely regrettable, insidious and corrupting. Nevertheless it was not venal. It arose not from private greed but from a failure of understanding by the generation of politicians that came to power alongside Tony Blair and New Labour in 1997. They obscurely felt that it was wrong that a political party once in power should be unable to use the institutions of state - judiciary, monarchy, Civil Service - for its own particular ends.

But human nature is frail. Over time the appetite to politicise the institutions of state has turned into a readiness to take personal advantage as well. Lack of respect for the proper process of government has shown itself in two ways. It has led on the one hand to the shambles and abuses identified - to give just one example - by Lord Butler in his report into the preliminaries of the Iraq war. On the other hand, this same looseness of procedure and practice has led to a surprisingly widespread abuse of public office for personal gain or advantage. Ministers are ceasing to ask how they can serve the common good; rather, they are asking how they can serve themselves. The case of David Blunkett, who abused his ministerial office and used the government car service to ferry his mistress up and down the country, is a recent case in point. Most importantly, when David Blunkett resigned from the government last year, the Prime Minister insisted that he had left office 'without a stain on his character'.

The controversy over the Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Blair, should be understood in this context. Mrs Blair is the most obvious and colourful product of the corrupt new system which New Labour has embedded in government. Rather than ask how she can serve the public good, she continually wants to know how she can use her position inside No. 10 Downing Street for herself. Cherie Blair is now running a private business from Downing Street, designed to make as much money as quickly as possible by trading on the fact that she is the wife of the British Prime Minister. Mary Wilson, married to an earlier Labour prime minister, once turned down a payment of £33 for one of her (rather good) poems for fear that she would be trading on her temporary incumbency of No. 10.

Supporters of Mrs Blair say that she is being unfairly pilloried, and to some extent they are right. It is Tony Blair, not she, who should be called to account. The Prime Minister must have approved his wife's decision to earn £100,000 in New Zealand - money that should rightfully have gone to a cancer charity. …

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