Friday, December 15, 2006

By your friends you shall know them

It was not exactly a dawn raid, but the knock on the door at No.10 Downing Street on Thursday marked the first time a sitting prime minister has been quizzed by police in connection with a criminal investigation. Unfortunately, police inquiries were to do with the sordid cash-for-honours affair rather than the illegal invasion of Iraq or the government-led conspiracy to demolish cherished democratic rights. Nonetheless, Tony Blair is one of about 90 people who have been interviewed by police during the probe. Three people have been arrested but no charges laid. One of those arrested was Lord Levy, New Labour's chief fundraiser, once dubbed "Lord Cashpoint", who also doubles as the prime minister's Middle East envoy. Levy ran the Labour Leader's Office Fund to finance Blair's campaign before the 1997 general election and received substantial contributions from such figures as Alex Bernstein and Robert Gavron, both of whom were given peerages by Blair after he came to power, as was Levy himself. Levy then secured a £1m donation to New Labour from Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone. Shortly after, the government changed its policy to allow Formula One to continue being sponsored by tobacco manufacturers. The subsequent row led to the return of the donation. It was the first sign that New Labour were just as sleazy as the Tories they had replaced.

As for his Middle East role, Levy is hardly a neutral. He is a supporter of Labour Friends of Israel and has been described by The Jerusalem Post as "undoubtedly the notional leader of British Jewry". He is also a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the self-appointed establishment leadership of the Jewish community. Levy has close ties with the Israeli Labour Party (now part of a right-wing coalition) and maintains a home in Tel Aviv. His son, Daniel Levy, is active in Israeli political life, and has served as an assistant to the former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Levy has praised Blair for his "solid and committed support of the State of Israel". Little wonder then that New Labour joined Washington in refusing to call for a ceasefire when Israel systematically demolished Lebanon’s infrastructure and targeted civilians during its summer war, or that there is silence in London while the Palestinians face daily attacks and a denial of their rights. But back to the cash-for-honours scandal. In September 2005, Levy was appointed President of the Council of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, the body overseeing the government's carve-up of state education. The men who lent money to Labour and were then nominated for peerages are Barry Townsley, a stockbroker who has also donated money towards a city academy school, Sir David Garrard, a property developer who also donated money to a city academy, Dr Chai Patel, chief executive of Priory Clinics and millionaire business Sir Gulam Noon, who says he was advised to keep a £250,000 loan secret. He was knighted by New Labour in 2002. As the saying goes, by your friends you shall know them. Assistant Commissioner John Yates, of Scotland Yard, has said he expects to complete his inquiry next month. He will then deliver a report to the Crown Prosecution Service, who will decide whether to prosecute any individuals in connection with the affair. Meanwhile, voters’ trust in the political process continues its free fall.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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