Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Blair's Chance to Show Politicians Are Decent after All; Political Commentary

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Blair's Chance to Show Politicians Are Decent after All; Political Commentary

Article excerpt


UNLIKE many politicians, Tony Blair does not bear grudges.

If he did, he would now be at war with most of the media. Virtually every newspaper and current affairs programme on radio or TV has taken a pot shot at him during the past week or two. If it wasn't about MMR and baby Leo, it was about his absence from the home front; if not about his foreign travels, then about Enron; if not about Enron, then about Keith Vaz, the former Europe Minister that the Prime Minister defended for so many months and who now faces the political version of a red card for sundry misdemeanours.

The latest allegation to surface over the weekend is that Mr Blair interceded on behalf of an Asian businessman who had donated more than [pound]125,000 to the Labour Party. As the Prime Minister returns from his visit to Africa, the chances are that he will not be shouting, nor will he display overt signs of anger. He is not like that.

Instead, he will be puzzled and a little hurt. He cannot understand that anyone should seriously imagine that he has done anything improper or hypocritical, or neglected his duties.

As it happens, I am on Mr Blair's side on most of the specifics. The Government's policy on MMR is right. Britain should do more to assist African trade and development. The Government has an impeccable record in first, bringing party finances into the open, and second, preventing donations to the Labour Party from distorting ministerial decisions. If you want to study seriously unhealthy links between business and government, don't stay in London. Go to Washington or Rome.

Yet, in a way, something larger and more dangerous is happening.

Public trust in politicians is visibly breaking down. What we are seeing is a phenomenon that is almost a force of nature. Like an erupting volcano it sweeps all before it. To ask why the public suffers a specific misconception makes as much sense as asking why lava disregards "No Entry" signs at the foot of the mountain.

Two urgent questions arise. Why has this happened? And, what can be done about it? The biggest cause is the pasteurisation of politics. Ministers - and, indeed, Opposition frontbenchers - are steeped in "the message". Before each interview they are given pieces of paper containing "key facts" and "lines to take". They are strongly discouraged from saying anything different. In short, they are not supposed to talk like real, honest, open human beings. The result is that they veer between sounding boring and seeming shifty. No wonder politics is turning voters off.

In a way, this development is the unfortunate consequence of a generally healthy development: a less deferential and more inquiring media. No recent example of sleaze compares with the Marconi shares scandal or Lloyd George's sale of honours in the early part of the 20th century. …

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