TCS Daily

Lords a-Leaping

By Val MacQueen - August 14, 2006 12:00 AM

"The £14 million in secret loans was known only to Mr. Blair, Lord Levy and Matt Carter, the general secretary of the Labour Party at the time"
-- The Times, July 16 2006

Sometime before the end of the year, Tony Blair will become the first sitting British prime minister in history to be formally questioned by the police. The questions are part of an ongoing corruption investigation regarding the selling of honors - lordships and the like. As events are developing, there is even a possibility that he may be arrested.

The questions will involve his apparent involvement in funding the bankrupt Labour Party in "cash for peerages" as the corruption scandal has come to be known. Peerages (they are "life", not "hereditary", lordships) are gifts of the prime minister and are to be handed out sparingly, as honors for services to the country. Selling peerages or other honors is against the law.

Blair, whose government has passed more than 700 new laws - more than twice as many as his closest predecessor, many of them so hurriedly drafted they are unworkable - has also exceeded his predecessor by at least 100 the number of new life peers. In other words, he has stuffed the British second chamber with Labour sympathizers.

And here is the rub.

The Labour Party is, for all intents and purposes, bankrupt. Membership has dropped and donations have dried up. How to keep the Party funded and looking vigorous and successful?

Enter Michael Levy. Born in a rundown section of London to immigrant Jewish parents, Levy made his fortune managing rock stars, including Chris Rea. He quickly became Blair's close friend and regular tennis partner and was rapidly elevated to a peerage. He is now Lord Levy of Mill Hill, and he holds the position of Blair's Special Envoy to the Middle East. It wasn't long before he had become Labour's chief fundraiser and known in the tabloids as Lord Cashpoint.

It was Levy who floated the idea with Blair, who loved it immediately, of asking wealthy donors for loans, knowing the party was broke and could never repay them. The donors were aware of this. But this meant that the "loans" could be registered as loans and not donations. And they could be "repaid" with a peerage. In effect, they were funding the Labour Party with no records and repaying them out of Britain's political system, which is does not belong to the Labour Party but to the people of Britain. Labour had raised £14 million ($27 million) in secret loans in return for honors at the time of the last election.

It all began to unravel when Indian born curry magnate Sir Gulam Noon understood that he would be getting a peerage for his "loan" plus a declared donation, amounting, between them, to around $1 million. Noon, a big fan of cricket and fair play and a thoroughly decent man, naively filled in the details of his "loan" in the paperwork preparatory to being put forward for a peerage. This caused a panicky reaction, and he was told to simply leave off the details of the "loan" as it wasn't really necessary. Noon retrieved his papers and removed the details, but it worried him and he told friends he had been advised to delete the details by "someone close to the prime minister".

It didn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure out who that was, and the police arrested Levy last month. Lord Levy made a statement at the time that he didn't intend to take the hit for No. 10 Downing Street. However, he later changed his mind and decided not to talk. This resulted in the police entering his London mansion and removing all his computers. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard has announced its intention of requiring Tony Blair to answer questions. Originally, they were going to question him within a month or six weeks, but Levy's change of heart means the investigation - trawling through computer records - will now take longer - possibly to the end of the year. Levy's decision not to talk may, indeed, be based on evading even more damaging allegations about the direct involvement of the prime minister.

Meanwhile, the administration is weighed down with other scandals. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has been seen on occasion walking around his great office of state with a glass of whisky in one hand and his secretary suspended round his neck by her legs. The tabloids disclosed that he arranged trysts with her at his grace-and-favor residences and had used government cars and drivers to ferry her around to meet him. But he wasn't fired when this was all over the front pages.

The silence of another former girlfriend (a Member of Parliament) was bought by elevating her to a Privy Counsellor (an advisor to the Queen).

Prescott recently enjoyed lavish hospitality of billionaire Philip Anschutz at his ranch in Colorado, returning to Britain with around $20,000 of gifts he didn't bother to declare - neither to Customs nor to Parliament, which he is also legally obliged to do. A decision will be taken, coincidentally by John Prescott, as to where Britain's first "super casino" will be located. Among the proposed venues is the Millennium Dome, which Anschutz owns.

Yet he continues in his job, prompting the question in the papers and British blogs: What does he have on Tony Blair?

When the "cash for peerages" scandal landed at the door of Downing Street via the arrest of Lord Levy, Britain's largest bookmakers William Hill slashed the odds on Tony Blair leaving office in 2006 from 11-4 to 2-1.

Just last week, Blair and his wife Cherie were touting themselves around California, future earnings very much on their minds. Blair, now routinely referred to as His Toniness in blogs and conversations, and the missus were socializing with movie stars and discussing their résumés with Rupert Murdoch in comfortable air-conditioning and at parties around limpid swimming pools. That they had planned to segue directly into their vacation at Cliff Richards' Barbados swankienda while British servicemen are suffering and dying in the heat of Iraq caused apoplexy in some British newspapers, which demanded he return to Britain postpone his vacation and take a role in the Lebanon crisis. As it was, Mrs. Blair went to the Bahamas without him.

And now it transpires that Governor Schwarzenegger has offered Blair a role in a possible new Terminator movie.

Give me strength.

Val MacQueen is a TCS Daily contributing writer.


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