Blair sinking amid sleaze allegations

THE era of Tony Blair, it seems, is ending not with the bang of fireworks celebrating unprecedented political and economic success, but with the whimperings of a prime minister mired in sleaze allegations.

Ingloriously, as Mr Blair travelled to the Middle East yesterday in search of peace in the region's intractable conflicts, the accompanying media caravan was much more interested in the murk of cash-for-honours and bribes-for-planes.

Looking annoyed and tired, Mr Blair fended off their questions irritably. He seemed to return to his more customary spirited self only when he defended his decision to stop the Serious Fraud Office inquiry into the Saudi arms deal as being in the national interest.

It seemed to sum up just how far apart events have forced his prime ministerial agenda from that of the public interest.

Here was Mr Blair hard at work trying to help smooth the path of Turkey to become the first Muslim member of the European Union, to assist in bringing about peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to persuade other Middle Eastern countries to help end the awful bloodshed in Iraq.

And yet despite the media having a front-row seat at the unfolding of potentially world-changing, world-improving events in which the British Prime Minister is personally involved, reporters insisted on pestering him with various other matters.

Why had he chosen to be interviewed by the police questioning him about donations to the Labour party, allegedly in exchange for peerages, on Thursday?

Why had Lord Goldsmith chosen to make the announcement about the abandonment of the SFO inquiry into the Saudi arms deal to an empty House of Lords, also on Thursday?

Could it be because this was also the day that Lord Stevens announced the findings of his meticulous inquiry into the death of Princess Diana?

Could it be that the government had hoped that the Stevens verdict would obscure these much more embarrassing issues?

"These are process questions," said Mr Blair wearily, refusing to answer them.

By that he means that they are questions about the timing of announcements rather than about the actual substance of announcements. But that, however, is something that this government has taught the media to ask, since it came into office priding itself on its ability to manage the media.

It also came into office in 1997, after the Conservatives had mired themselves neck-deep in sleaze, pledging that it would not just be clean, but would show itself to be clean.

It was too, a government that would have an "ethical" foreign policy. And yet, ten years later, here was Mr Blair halting a corruption investigation into allegations that millions of pounds of bribes were paid to members of the Saudi Arabian royal family to secure their order for 72 Eurofighter Typhoon jets from BAE.

It was, Mr Blair said, nothing to do with the thousands of British jobs, or the 10 billion of income to a British company that are at stake. "If we had allowed this to go forward, we would have done immense damage to the interests of this country," he said in Brussels. "Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is vitally important for our country in terms of counter-terrorism, in terms of the broader Middle East, in terms of helping in respect of Israel-Palestine, and that strategic interest comes first."

The questions about this decision, however, will not go away. Because we have seen the Blair government kowtowing to the Saudis over, for example, the false imprisonment and torture of British subjects, the suspicion remains that Liberal Democrats are correct to accuse Mr Blair of caving into "blackmail".

Worse, it sends a message to any business tempted to do business in Saudi Arabia that they might as well pay the bribes because the British authorities will take no action. As Sir Menzies Campbell, the LibDem leader, noted, it was "a sorry day for Britain's international reputation".

Less grievous to the international order, but more corrosive to domestic politics, is the news of the first serving prime minister to be interviewed by police investigating a crime.

Mr Blair's spokesman was swift to point out that the Prime Minister was not interviewed under caution as a suspect, but was spoken to simply as a witness. But it is not as though Mr Blair happened to see a mugging as he looked out of the kitchen window. Indeed, the central allegation is that Mr Blair has presided over a mugging of the honours system so that the Labour party can obtain millions of pounds.

Indeed, even if it is eventually announced that no such assault ever took place, that Mr Blair and all his party colleagues are entirely innocent, the government's halting of the Saudi inquiry will invite the cynical to ask whether this is a political judgment rather than one based on the evidence.

So the questions will go on, and on, echoing in Mr Blair's ears for many months after he has left office. No matter whether he does bring about peace in the Middle East, or that his government has produced an economy with the highest employment and lowest unemployment on record, with sustained growth and low inflation, the questions will still be asked. What really went on the Saudi deal? And with cash for questions?

How sad. How very, very sad.

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