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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Sleaze busters

If there is one thing that is certain, it is that Cameron's Tories are going to find it more and more difficult to pin sleaze allegations on Tony Blair's government when they are caught in exactly the same mire;

A new analysis shows for the first time the impact of an operation by three big Conservative donors to bankroll critical seats in the run-up to polling day, revealing it raised up to 10 times as much in donations as Labour in some places - producing large swings to oust sitting MPs.

And while most recipients declared the gifts in the Commons register of members' interests once elected, David Cameron - whose Witney constituency in Oxfordshire got £5,500 from his party's former treasurer, Lord Ashcroft, among others - did not.

The report by Peter Bradley, a former Labour MP who lost to one of the bankrolled candidates last May, shows how money poured in during the two years before the election - much of it before strict spending curbs imposed during the actual campaign took effect.

There is nothing illegal about any of this of course. Nor is it actually against the law to receive loans from overseas donors, which are then siphoned into target seats. In fact I believe that it will prove very difficult to impose spending limits in constituencies outside of an election period when MPs all enjoy substantial largesse from the taxpayer to circulate annual reports, not available to their opponents. It is bad enough seeking to identify and categorise expenditure during an election. The number of grey areas around peacetime spending would be insurmountable in my view.

What is needed in this situation is transparency. We need to be clear whether overseas lenders should be outlawed in line with overseas donors. We need to ensure that loans are subject to the same rules as donations and we must look at state funding so as to take away any suspicion that influence or position is being bought. The Government can no longer avoid answering hard questions on this issue.
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