The poisonous legacy of the Blair years

It's less than a month since Gordon Brown brought Peter Mandelson back to the Cabinet. Yet already we are back to the land of spin and questionable judgement.

It's less than a month since Gordon Brown brought Peter Mandelson back to the Cabinet, says Matthew D'Ancona in The Sunday Telegraph. Yet already we are back to the "same old stories of spin, counter-spin, high living, and ill-advised entanglements with the super-rich". In a letter to The Times this week, Mandelson corrected a previous statement issued by European Commission officials, which suggested he had first met Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska in 2006. He stated that they had in fact first met in 2004. The date is central to questions over whether, as European Trade Commissioner, he faced potential conflicts of interest.

One example is the decision taken three years ago to cut tariffs on aluminium, which would have saved Deripaska's firm tens of millions of pounds. Mandelson also faces scrutiny over his promotion of Montenegro's entry into the World Trade Organisation, says James Chapman in the Daily Mail. Deripaska, Nat Rothschild and others want to turn part of the tiny Adriatic nation into a haven for the jet-set.

Mandelson, who says that his job entailed close relationships with the world's business elite, claims he will be more careful in future. But he should have learned his lesson already, says Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer. Both his previous resignations were due to his involvement with very rich men, but the "smell of big money" seems to send politicians "off their heads". Mandelson and shadow Chancellor George Osborne are rich, but even they feel impoverished in the "presence of the billionocracy". Blair hankered for the lifestyle and couldn't resist free holidays from wealthy friends. But politicians must be "more careful than most whose favours they accept", says Max Hastings in the Daily Mail. Most free lunches they are offered come "with barbs embedded in the caviar as the suckers would see if they were not so eager to swallow the bait".

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Worse, such behaviour debases British democracy, says Peter Oborne in the Daily Mail. It is the "single most poisonous legacy of Tony Blair's decade in government". Until 1997, standards of public life in Britain were the envy of the world, with meetings between business tycoons and ministers monitored by civil servants. Blair's 'sofa government', with its reliance on "unelected advisers and cronies", put an end to all that.

Civil servants were excluded from key meetings. Connections between ministers and businessmen aided by highly-paid PR men, such as Tim Allan and Matthew Freud, were placed on a "uniquely undemocratic footing". That Mandelson and Osborne thought fit to socialise with a man like Deripaska is the "glaring scandal" of the whole affair, agrees Edward Lucas in the Daily Mail. Whitehall officials are privately "aghast" at the way Russian money is influencing politicians. No wonder, says Hastings. "Scarcely one of Russia's oligarchs has made his fortune by honest toil."

It is highly unlikely that this affair would have been publicised at all had it not been for Osborne's "impetuousness", says The Independent. Yet now we have the distinct impression that this is the way the world is run and it is "jarringly at odds with the public face that politicians like to present of considered decisions made by properly minuted committees in boring offices in Whitehall".

Emily Hohler

Emily has worked as a journalist for more than thirty years and was formerly Assistant Editor of MoneyWeek, which she helped launch in 2000. Prior to this, she was Deputy Features Editor of The Times and a Commissioning Editor for The Independent on Sunday and The Daily Telegraph. She has written for most of the national newspapers including The Times, the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, The Evening Standard and The Daily Mail, She interviewed celebrities weekly for The Sunday Telegraph and wrote a regular column for The Evening Standard. As Political Editor of MoneyWeek, Emily has covered subjects from Brexit to the Gaza war.

Aside from her writing, Emily trained as Nutritional Therapist following her son's diagnosis with Type 1 diabetes in 2011 and now works as a practitioner for Nature Doc, offering one-to-one consultations and running workshops in Oxfordshire.