Published on Saturday, March 18, 2006 by the New York Times
Hints of Corruption Lead Some to Urge Blair to Resign
by Alan Cowell
LONDON Compounding woes for Prime Minister Tony Blair, his Labor Party acknowledged Friday that it had received more than three times the amount it had previously reported in secret campaign loans.
The disclosure fed a debate swirling around Mr. Blair's political future, as did an unusual editorial in The Economist reversing the weekly's support for him in last year's election.
It would be "better, surely, for him to quit while he is still ahead," The Economist said, echoing remarks from other publications on the left and the right.
The newly disclosed loans have many Britons wondering whether Mr. Blair's party has fallen into the same kind of quagmire of sleaze that contributed to the defeat of the Conservatives in 1997.
Mr. Blair, who has been prime minister since then, has said he will not fight a fourth campaign, indicating that he will hand over power to Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer, before the next elections, which will be in 2010 at the latest.
In a statement on Friday, the Labor Party said it had taken loans worth $24.5 million from individuals, more than three times the $7 million it had previously reported. It did not say who had made the loans, which accounted for most of the $31 million Labor said it spent on last May's elections.
News reports had identified three of the lenders as wealthy businessmen who had been recommended by Mr. Blair for peerages, an honor that brings a title and membership in the House of Lords. Each had made a loan worth more than $1.75 million.
At a news conference on Thursday, Mr. Blair denied suggestions that his party had traded honors for the loans, which, under current campaign financing laws, do not have to be publicly declared in the same way as donations.
"It shouldn't be one in exchange for the other, and it wasn't," Mr. Blair said. "I am completely satisfied that there has been no breach of the rules in relation to Labor Party nominations" for peerages.
All major political parties in Britain are entitled to nominate members for the House of Lords, but the final selection is made by an independent commission.
The questions surfaced at a difficult time for Mr. Blair. His parliamentary majority was more than halved in May and he now faces regular challenges by dissidents within his party.
Those difficulties may now have been overtaken by the allegations of influence-trading, which contrast sharply with Mr. Blair's pledge when he took office almost nine years ago that his party would be "purer than pure."
Since then, a procession of questions have emerged about the financial dealings of both the party and personalities, ranging from the prime minister and his wife, Cherie Booth, to a former minister, Peter Mandelson, and to donors, including Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One racing magnate.
In an editorial on Friday, a liberal daily, The Independent, said that of 23 people who had donated more than $175,000 to Labor, "17 have been granted a peerage or a knighthood."
"This tacky trade would arguably be less damaging to the public good were it not for the fact that a peerage comes with substantial political influence," the editorial said.
In The Guardian, a left-of-center newspaper, the columnist Polly Toynbee observed, "Whatever he does, Blair still has to answer the embarrassing question: did he offer peerages for cash?" She also suggested an early departure for the prime minister.
In The Daily Mail, whose politics are on the right wing, the columnist Max Hastings wrote Friday, "This is the world not of British politics but of Tammany Hall," adding that Mr. Blair's dealings "convey a stench that would cause an American congressman to hold his nose."
© 2006 New York Times