Wednesday, 22 October 2008

The George and Mandy Show

What fun we politico watchers are having at the moment. No sooner was attention focussed on the newly ennobled Peter Mandelson's dealings with a Russian businessman than a rumour came from nowhere about the Conservative shadow chancellor, George Osborne, asking that businessman to contribute to Conservative Party funds. It is one of those situations I enjoy enormously because it really has very little to do with the headlines and everything to do with devious machinations behind the scenes.

It is not easy to ascertain the precise allegation being made against Mr Osborne because the accuser, someone called Rothschild, has expressed himself in ambiguous terms. The highest it can be put appears to be: (i) Mr Osborne invited someone who raises money for the Conservative party, Andrew Feldman, to a social gathering (which the Russian was hosting) in the hope that a donation could be solicited and (ii) on three occasions either Mr Osborne or Mr Feldman or both discussed with Mr Rothschild either the possibility of the Russian donating to Conservative party funds or the mechanism by which such a donation could be made.

This allegation is not as illusory as some have suggested. If it amounted to a nascent plot to circumvent the ban on foreign donations to UK political parties Mr Osborne could be subject to substantive criticism. A foreign national who has control of a UK company could quite legitimately secure a donation to a party from that company without anyone breaking the law because British companies are entitled to make such donations no matter the nationality of their shareholders or managers. What is not permitted is receipt of a donation made, directly or indirectly, by the foreigner himself. Any attempt by a politician or political party to secure a donation from a foreigner could be illegal and would certainly be against the spirit of the law. There is little, if anything, in the allegation made by Mr Rothschild to support such a claim against Mr Osborne.

So why is it being given such prominence on television and in the newspapers? It seems unlikely that those media have any substantive evidence in addition to what Mr Rothschild has already said because one would expect them to have broadcast it to get one step ahead of their competitors. Of course they might be drip-feeding the evidence to give Mr Osborne an opportunity to resign now and avoid further embarrassment; that technique was used when they exposed Lord Mandelson's corruption in the past. This story, however, does not have that feel to it. When exposing corruption the main allegation is always made first, it is additional material about the surrounding circumstances and additional details of the way the corrupt activity was conducted that is fed drip-by-drip. There is a very good reason for doing it in that way.

A story of corruption that rests on word of mouth rather than documentary evidence is only as strong as the integrity of the person making the allegation. Someone who says "George Osborne told me he was interested in the Conservative party receiving a donation from a foreigner" will either be believed or he will not. Supporting evidence of, for example, the foreigner himself saying "yes, Mr Osborne asked me for cash in a brown envelope", will back up the story and make the original accuser more believable. By contrast, the accuser adding more serious allegations later when it appears that his original story has not been believed simply causes one to ask why, if he is telling the truth, he did not tell the full story originally. His claim becomes weaker by being drip-fed, not stronger.

On the face of it we have heard the main weight of the allegation against Mr Osborne. That there is no evidence at all of the Russian businessman having been approached about making a donation suggests that, at most, Mr Osborne discussed with Mr Rothschild whether a donation might be possible and, if so, whether a path exists by which it could be made lawfully. All in all, it looks like a non-story to me, not least because the one thing we know for certain is that neither the Russian businessman nor any British company in which he has a substantial interest made any donation to the Conservative party.

The most obvious explanation for this story being given so much prominence at the moment is that the Downing Street spin machine is flexing its muscles again. Knowing that poor Gordon's all-new, all-squeaky-clean, all-incorruptible Mandelson-in-shining-armour is under attack for personal corruption within weeks of taking office, they have done what they used to do in their heyday under Tony Blair, make a counterattack before the attack has been fully mounted by their opponents. News of Lord Mandleson engaging in corrupt activities is old hat, news that George Osborne might have done something sleazy too is very new hat. Even if, as appears on current evidence, there is little or no substance to the allegation, the mere fact that it is made is headline news. Who is going to kerbcrawl for the old tart when fresh meat is standing at the next street corner?

In time the spotlight will turn back on Lord Mandelson, the serial resigner. His position remains exactly as it was before Mr Rothschild intervened. Lord Mandelson was EU Trade Commissioner at the time he attended social functions as the guest of the Russian businessman concerned. As Trade Commissioner he was responsible for the formulation of EU trade policy including every aspect of how EU trade policy affects businesses outside the EU. One might think it somewhat unwise of him to accept lavish personal hospitality from the man behind many millions of Euros of annual trade between the EU and Russia. Decisions taken by the Trade Commissioner can have a direct effect on the wealth of those controlling non-EU trading companies and it is important that such decisions are taken impartially. It is one thing to glad-hand prominent businessmen and politicians, that is part of the standard protocol just as the UK's prime minister has to shake hands and say "nice to see you, I hope you're well" to a host of barbaric dictators. It is another thing entirely to accept an invitation to stay as a personal guest on Billionaires' Row.

No doubt we will learn much more about Lord Mandelson's intimate entwinement in the personal lives of the rich and oligarchical. That will be a real story and will end in his third forced resignation from government. Raising a weak story about George Osborne will allow him to buy time and say "you can't complain about me because George did something wrong too". One thing the deeply corrupt do not understand is that misbehaviour by another does not make them clean. Another thing they do not understand is that saying "look at him, look at him, he's dirty too" is an admission not an excuse.


Bobsheadrevisited said...

As ever, FB, well-written, entertaining and very informative.

Mandys Dolls House said...

Are you sure?

Alan said...

I must admit, I think it is a complete non-story. A politician sits down to discuss donations with a wealthy man, discovers he is a foreigner and decides he cannot accept the money.

Is it perhaps something to do with the media not liking the current way of funding political parties? Or is it related to the media wanting to sell more of their newspapers?

I wonder if Mr Osborne has annoyed any journalists?