Sunday, January 25, 2009

Two stories that damage politics itself...

Two big stories in today's Sunday papers have the potential to further sully the reputation of our political process in the eyes of the public.

First, revelations about generous freebies and a £1 million paycheck allegedly taken by former Tory Chancellor Ken Clarke from tobacco companies while he was also being paid as MP to represent the people of Rushcliffe.

The Mail on Sunday show Ken Clarke's close links to British American Tobacco chairman going back a quarter of a century to the time when he was a Government Minister.

It is alleged that BAT were offering him freebies as long ago as 1988. The following year, as Health Secretary, Ken Clarke resisted moves to add 'smoking kills' warnings on fag packets.

It's important to add that Ken Clarke denies he or BAT did anything 'improper'.

To many people, the very appeal of Ken Clarke has been his enduring - and rather endearing - hush-puppy image of an ordinary bloke who speaks his mind.

Years ago, I remember being impressed by the stories that at Tory Party Conferences, Mr Clarke and his wife always preferred to stay in a homely little B&B - even when he was Chancellor - rather than in the rather grand Conference hotel with the rest of his collagues.

His no-nonsense image is surely the reason ex Bullingdon-boy David Cameron brought Ken Clarke back to the Tory front-bench earlier this week after 11 years: to try to connect with 'ordinary' people.

If nothing else, today's Mail on Sunday shatters Ken Clarke's frugal image. But it is also another hammer-blow to the business of politics itself.

Today's other big political story is, if true, much more explosive and potentially even more damaging.

The Sunday Times alleges that four Labour peers were prepared to help amend laws if they received cash from business.

The Labour peers in the headlights today deny they broke any rules and a thorough investigation has already been promised by the Leader of the House of Lords Baroness Royall.

I have to say this story has horrible undertones of the disgraceful 'cash for questions' scandal involving Tory MPs some 15 years ago when a Sunday Times 'sting' exposed certain Conservative MPs who were prepared to accept cash to ask questions in Parliament.

Much has been done since then to tighten up the rules and introduce transparency at the Palace of Westminster, particularly in the Commons.

But if the allegations in the Sunday Times story prove true, then it will hopefully serve to speed up root and branch reform of our Upper Chamber to give confidence and trust in those chosen to govern us.

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