By: MIKE JOHNSON
THERE WAS one of those moments in the House of Commons a few weeks ago that will stick in the memory.
Vince Cable, the acting Liberal Democrat leader, stood up at Prime Minister’s Question Time and, referring to Gordon Brown, said: “The House has noticed the prime minister’s remarkable transformation in the past few weeks from Stalin to Mr Bean.
Cable was comparing the famous iron fist of Mr Brown when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer with his present rather inept way of dealing with ever-increasing crises for the government since he entered Downing Street.
There was a considerable amount of public goodwill for him when he took over from Tony Blair. Tired of the later years of Blair’s presidential-style of leadership, many welcomed Brown’s no-nonsense approach in dealing with the
summer floods, the new outbreaks of foot and mouth disease and avian flu, and the financial collapse of Northern Rock building society.
His Presbyterian Scottish background seemed to suit the mood of the country, tired of Blair’s years of sleaze and spin, which ended in the Cash for Honours scandal.
However, it is money which has for the second time caused the Metropolitan Police to be called in to investigate Labour Party funding. In Blair’s case, it was the alleged selling of peerages in exchange for donations of millions of pounds to party funds.
Now, it is the practice of Proxy Donors that has attracted police attention, and it all began with a previously unknown property developer from Newcastle, in the north east of England.
David Abrahams had grown up supporting the Labour Party. Both of his parents had been city councillors and his father eventually became Lord Mayor. He seemed to revel in his parents’ political success and tried to emulate them.
Various attempts to gain selection for local council seats failed and his one effort to get into parliament, in the safe Conservative seat of Richmond in Yorkshire, was thwarted in a bizarre manner.
He turned up at the selection board with a woman whom he introduced as his wife and he had a child with her. The image of the happy family swayed the panel in his favour and he was selected to fight the seat.
That dream collapsed when the ‘wife’ revealed to a local newspaper that she was only a friend and had been persuaded by Mr Abrahams to act out a charade. She and her son had come along purely to create a favourable impression, in order to gain the nomination.
This episode probably led indirectly to Gordon Brown’s present problems. Mr Abrahams, now a millionaire, has donated at least 670,000 pounds sterling to the Labour party since 2003, but has hidden this by using other people as ‘proxy donors’.
He hid his identity by getting them to send cheques in their names. It is ironic that Labour, itself, had brought in legislation to make donations transparent and open. All doubtful cases were to be referred to an Electoral Commission, but none of Mr Abrahams’ donations were referred.
The General Secretary of the Labour Party has admitted he was aware of the subterfuge and turned a blind eye to it. He has now resigned but other party officials – and even members of the government – are still under suspicion, and now police are investigating.
While this was going on, the police were still trying to locate two computer discs containing personal data of 25 million citizens, which ‘went missing’ in transit between a government department dealing with child benefits and an audit office.
All this is bad news for Gordon Brown and is the last thing he needs. The Conservative leader, David Cameron, is naturally making as much political capital as he can out of the matter and he is riding high in recent opinion polls – one giving the Tories an 11-point lead over Labour.
There are even stories circulating of a plot by former Blairite ministers to bring down the prime minister, although these have, of course, been denied by those concerned.
There are certainly some members of the former Blair government, now sitting on the back benches, who are revelling in Gordon Brown’s discomfort, but the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, tried to scotch any rumours by saying:“I have never known the party so united behind one leader”.
This might be of no great comfort for Mr Brown, as similar sentiments are often expressed by football club chairmen the day before they sack their manager, but he is in a stronger position.
Admittedly, he did change his mind about calling a snap election in November, when the opinion polls were favourable and that gave his opponents the opportunity to claim he had ‘bottled out’.
However, he has declared he knew nothing of the Abrahams affair until the day before it appeared in the media and has acted promptly to bring everything out into the open. So, putting stories of a potential coup aside, he can hope to ride out the storm.
One piece of good news for Mr Brown was the release of the British teacher, Gillian Gibbons, sent to jail in Sudan for 15 days for ‘insulting Islam’, after letting her class call a teddy bear Mohammed. The 54-year old had avoided being convicted of inciting racial hatred, which would have carried a potential sentence of 40 lashes, six months in jail and a fine.
She was freed by Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir, following a personal appeal by two British Muslim peers, Lord Ahmed and Baroness Warsi. They had travelled to Khartoum independently, after diplomatic efforts by the Foreign Office had failed to make progress.
After Mrs Gibbons’ release, Mr Brown was quick to praise moderate British Muslims who had strongly criticised Sudan for over-reacting to such a trivial matter.
Now, perhaps, we might see the restoration of some Christian Christmas traditions – banned by over-sensitive local authorities in the name of protecting the feelings of British Muslims.