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Personal view:

A near-unanimous vote by the fourth estate - Blair can't lord it much longer


By Roy Greenslade (Filed: 21/03/2006)

It may be unprecedented. I cannot recall any political episode that has united Britain's press like Labour's loans-for-lordships scandal. The Daily Mail's Peter McKay, who has lived through many a scandal in his long journalistic career, was correct yesterday in writing that Tony Blair's "media coverage over the weekend was his worst ever - even from commentators who had previously crawled to him".

Some newspapers launched their attacks more in sorrow than in anger. Others gloated. But all agreed that the Prime Minister's secret loan arrangements and consequent elevation to the ermine of several donors is unacceptable. Even those papers normally predisposed to circle their wagons around Blair slipped away in the night to leave him facing the flak.

As the details of the scandal emerged the editors of the Times, the Sun and the Daily Mirror did not have the stomach for a fight on Blair's behalf. They knew their readers just wouldn't stand for it. I'll come back to their particular contortions in a moment, because they did try to turn the horses around. Meanwhile, it is sobering to sample the leading articles and commentaries in papers that have long been critical of Blair's administration and are therefore inured to No 10's spinners, whether from left or right.

The Daily Mail called Blair "the Richard Nixon of Downing Street" and gave a front page blurb to Max Hastings who argued that Blair "has forfeited honour, dignity and the right to be believed by anyone", concluding that he "is no longer fit to hold office".

For the Daily Express "a party funding scam" had lodged Blair "up to his neck in dodgy secret deals". Its Sunday stablemate said Blair was tainted. The Independent referred to the "tacky trade" that "demeans the body politic and sullies the reputation of those appointed to the Upper House for genuine distinction or public service". And its Sunday title was harsher still, noting that the Prime Minister was "tainted", having "fallen short of the standards he set himself".

The Guardian weighed in with a reminder that Blair's claim in 1997 to be "a pretty straight sort of guy" had been besmirched by his being "mixed up in a shoddy business… seeking back-door cash from rich donors".

The Sunday Times reminded us that "sleaze helped propel Tony Blair to power... and sleaze will help to end his political career" and concluded: "Mr Blair is slowly killing new Labour along with his own good name".

That was a theme echoed in many editorials. "This is the first time the Prime Minister has been caught shamelessly deceiving the British public," said the Sunday Telegraph, "about a commitment to a principle that he made central to the whole 'new Labour project'."

The cartoonists had a field day, with the Financial Times's Martin Turner arguably producing the best, while the sketch-writers were also scathing. The Daily Telegraph's Andrew Gimson sarcastically suggested that Blair was defending "what is probably the most despised minority in modern Britain" in standing "shoulder to shoulder with self-made men who have given money to Labour and would like to become peers".

Simon Jenkins in the Sunday Times, widening his critique beyond the loans affair, pointed to Downing Street's creation of a "private electoral machine". Bruce Anderson, while defending the granting of peerages to wealthy men as a perfectly sensible practice, accused Blair of being "guilty of cynicism, deception and hypocrisy".

None of this, by itself, was too surprising, though the amount of space devoted to the subject and the similarity of the outrage expressed was certainly unusual. What made the coverage so unusual was that the Blairite press found it difficult to disagree. The Times, though referring to the secret loaning of huge sums as "an ethically dubious practice" and a "grubby meeting place of money and politics", tried desperately to divert attention from the grubbiness by pointing to Blair's belated concession "for further reform in the appointments of peers".

The Daily Mirror contended that the scandal was "seamy", "unsavoury" and "deeply disturbing". Blair, it said, "no longer has clean hands, alas". That "alas" was so very touching.

The Sun was the only paper to accept the Downing Street spin right from the start. Its news story suggested that it was merely another chapter in the Blair-Brown saga while its editorial heaped scorn on Labour's treasurer,

Jack Dromey, for a mixture of treachery and cynicism because of his public "outburst" in revealing that he knew nothing about the loans. "The first rule of trade unionism", it told the former "union Leftie", is "to stand by your mates even when they are in the wrong". Surely this was the oddest of arguments for the Sun, of all papers, to advance.

John Rentoul, a Blair biographer wrote in the Independent on Sunday of Dromey as "the internal opposition" though even he was moved to observe that Blair had "been caught out, bang to rights, without a leg to stand on". It was also noticeable that Blair's former communications director, Alastair Campbell, knocked Dromey in his Daily Mirror article yesterday.

The rubbishing of Dromey struck both Suzanne Moore in the Mail on Sunday and Polly Toynbee in the Guardian as beside the point. Don't shoot the messenger, said Toynbee, take heed of the message. Both also argued that Blair had lost touch with the concerns of the voters.

Another commentator sympathetic to Labour, the Observer's Andrew Rawnsley, thought Blair likely to be bracketed with Major for running a sleazy administration. In Downing Street's terms, these critics were hardly "the usual suspects", and the relentless concentration on the scandal continued yesterday, with most papers musing on the implications for Blair's future of the ICM poll carried in the Sunday Telegraph that revealed 73pc of the population people believing that Labour is as sleazy as the John Major's former government.

The Guardian, which noted on Friday that Blair had sold himself as "a pretty straight sort of guy" and was in danger of being remembered as just the opposite, yesterday urged him to resign in the summer. Matthew Parris had said the same in the Times three days before.

Rightly, many journalists have understood the funding difficulties faced by all parties. If the taxpayers refuse to countenance state handouts, especially if money goes to parties the vast majority of the population view as unaceptable, then the necessary sums can only be raised from the rich. And the rich, especially the nouveaux riches, rarely shell out without some kind of return, such as a peerage.

Despite that uncomfortable reality, which is understood by the press, the coverage of the loans scandal is surely the beginning of the end for Blair.

The papers are clearly not going to let this story pass because there are still secrets to uncover - such as the names of all the donors - and journalists will not rest until they know the truth.

It's all very well for the Observer to call for Blair to "show a commitment to progressive government" by reforming party finance, tearing up the honours system and transforming the House of Lords. But he should have done that eight years ago. Now, surely, it's too late.IT MAY be unprecedented. I cannot recall any political episode that has united Britain's press like Labour's loans-for-lordships scandal. The Daily Mail's Peter McKay, who has lived through many a scandal in his long journalistic career, was correct yesterday in writing that Tony Blair's "media coverage over the weekend was his worst ever - even from commentators who had previously crawled to him."

Some papers launched attacks more in sorrow than in anger. Others gloated. But all agreed that the Prime Minister's secret loan arrangements and consequent elevation to the ermine of several donors is unacceptable. Even those papers normally predisposed to circle their wagons around Blair slipped away in the night. As the details of the scandal emerged, the editors of the Times, the Sun and the Daily Mirror did not have the stomach for a fight on Blair's behalf. They knew their readers just wouldn't stand for it. The Daily Mail called Blair "the Richard Nixon of Downing Street" and gave a front page blurb to Max Hastings who argued that Blair "has forfeited honour, dignity and the right to be believed by anyone", concluding he "is no longer fit to hold office".

For the Daily Express, "a party funding scam" had lodged Blair "up to his neck in dodgy secret deals". Its Sunday stablemate said Blair was tainted. The Independent referred to the "tacky trade" that "demeans the body politic and sullies the reputation of those appointed to the Upper House for genuine distinction or public service". Its Sunday title was harsher still, noting that the Prime Minister was "tainted", having "fallen short of the standards he set himself".

The Guardian gave a reminder that Blair's claim in 1997 to be "a pretty straight sort of guy" had been besmirched by his being "mixed up in a shoddy business … seeking back-door cash from rich donors".

The Sunday Times reminded us that "sleaze helped propel Tony Blair to power … and sleaze will help to end his political career" and concluded: "Mr Blair is slowly killing new Labour along with his own good name."

That was a theme echoed in many editorials. "This is the first time the Prime Minister has been caught shamelessly deceiving the British public," the Sunday Telegraph said, "about a commitment to a principle that he made central to the whole 'new Labour project'."

The cartoonists had a field day, with the Financial Times's Martin Turner arguably producing the best. The sketch-writers were also scathing. The Daily Telegraph's Andrew Gimson sarcastically suggested Blair was defending "probably the most despised minority in modern Britain" in standing "shoulder to shoulder with self-made men who have given money to Labour and would like to become peers".

Simon Jenkins in the Sunday Times, going beyond the loans affair, pointed to Downing Street's creation of a "private electoral machine". Bruce Anderson, defending granting peerages to wealthy men as perfectly sensible, accused Blair of being "guilty of cynicism, deception and hypocrisy".

None of this, by itself, was too surprising, though the amount of space devoted to the subject and the similarity of the outrage was unusual. What made the coverage different was that the Blairite press found it difficult to disagree. The Times, referring to the secret loaning of huge sums as "an ethically dubious practice" and a "grubby meeting place of money and politics", tried to divert attention from the grubbiness by pointing to Blair's concession "for further reform in the appointments of peers".

The Daily Mirror contended that the scandal was "seamy", "unsavoury" and "deeply disturbing". Blair, it said, "no longer has clean hands, alas". That "alas" was so very touching.

The Sun was the only paper to accept the Downing Street spin from the start. Its news story suggested it was merely another chapter in the Blair-Brown saga, while its editorial heaped scorn on Labour's treasurer, Jack Dromey, for treachery and cynicism because of his public "outburst" in revealing he knew nothing about the loans. "The first rule of trade unionism", it told the former "union Leftie", is "to stand by your mates even when they are in the wrong". Surely this was the oddest of arguments for the Sun, of all papers, to advance.

John Rentoul, a Blair biographer, wrote in the Independent on Sunday of Dromey as "the internal opposition" though even he was moved to observe that Blair had "been caught out, bang to rights, without a leg to stand on". It was also noticeable that Blair's former communications director, Alastair Campbell, knocked Dromey in his Daily Mirror article yesterday.

The rubbishing of Dromey struck both Suzanne Moore in the Mail on Sunday and Polly Toynbee in the Guardian as beside the point. Don't shoot the messenger, Toynbee said, take heed of the message. Both also argued Blair had lost touch with the concerns of the voters.

Another commentator sympathetic to Labour, the Observer's Andrew Rawnsley, thought Blair likely to be bracketed with Major for running a sleazy administration. In Downing Street's terms, these critics were hardly "the usual suspects", and the relentless concentration on the scandal continued yesterday, with most papers musing on the implications for Blair's future of the ICM poll carried in the Sunday Telegraph that revealed 73pc of the population people believing Labour is as sleazy as John Major's former government.

The Guardian, which noted on Friday that Blair had sold himself as "a pretty straight sort of guy" and was in danger of being remembered as just the opposite, urged him yesterday to resign in the summer. Matthew Parris had said the same in the Times three days before.

Rightly, many journalists understand the funding difficulties faced by all parties. If taxpayers refuse to countenance state handouts, especially if money goes to parties the vast majority view as unacceptable, the necessary sums can only be raised from the rich who, especially the nouveaux riches, rarely shell out without some kind of return, such as a peerage.

Despite that uncomfortable reality, which is understood by the press, the coverage of the loans scandal is surely the beginning of the end for Blair. The papers are clearly not going to let this story pass because there are still secrets to uncover - such as the names of all the donors - and journalists will not rest until they know the truth.

It's all very well for the Observer to call for Blair to "show a commitment to progressive government" by reforming party finance, tearing up the honours system and transforming the House of Lords. But he should have done that eight years ago. Now, surely, it's too late.