Sunday, 24 May 2009

The Lib Dems in the Brown Stuff...

Not many days go by on without some Tory activist raising the issue of the £2.4 million donation given to the Liberal Democrats by the (now) convicted fraudster Michael Brown. It has oft been a refrain of the Tory blogsphere (including such notables as Iain Dale) that the money should be repaid.

The current row over MP's expenses has once again highlighted the issue and Nick Clegg was quizzed about it on the Politics Show this lunchtime.

To be honest, I thought he fielded the question well enough but parts of the answer didn't convince and I think he should have been more robust in defending the Party's position.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and of course if the Party knew then what it knows now about Brown. the money would not have been accepted. But, at the time, the Party went through all the checks possible (and this has been recognised by the Electoral Commission) and took the money in good faith.

There is an argument that the money should have been repaid once Brown was accused and convicted but we are back to the salient point - should political parties return all donations from those individuals subsequently accused and convicted of a financial-related crime ? I can't believe the Conservative or Labour parties have never accepted a donation from someone who was later convicted of a financial-related offence. Did they repay the money ?

Of course, this is irrelevant. Opponents of the Liberal Democrats hope that forcing the Party to repay £2.4 million will either leave the Party bankrupt or so financially damaged as to not pose a threat for decades to come. So, it's nothing to do with integrity or transparency but much more to do with sheer politics and political advantage.

In the post-expenses atmosphere of near-hysteria, there is a desire for parties and MPs to be completely clear of impropriety and deception. I think this overreaction is completely overdone. There's a world of difference between the outright corrupt and criminal and the foolish and vain.
Much of what we have seen in the MP's expenses debacle is as much about using expenses to improve the quality of life or massaging personal vanity as it is about a determined effort to be corrupt or venal.

Unfortunately, I suspect the Brown donation will continue to be a millstone for the Liberal Democrats for some time to come. The Party probably could repay the money at once if it had to though a planned series of repayments might work better. Ultimately, unless a future investigation categorically clears the Party of any wrongdoing and confirms the money does not need to be repaid, the insects of the Tory blogsphere will continue to swarm and bite..

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