Belfast Telegraph

PM trying to wriggle off hook in party funding can of worms

By Tom Moseley

After the Government announced a minimum price for alcohol last Friday afternoon, some cynics suggested it had been rushed through to deflect attention from George Osborne's Budget.

It didn't quite do the trick. Criticism of the 'Granny Tax' - the only announcement they didn't leak in advance - continued unabated over the weekend.

But the Downing Street spin doctors needn't have worried, because now something has come along that will wipe even pensioners' personal allowances off the front pages.

Except that this could be more damaging. The Conservatives' co-treasurer, Peter Cruddas, has apparently boasted that £250,000 could secure dinner with David Cameron, triggering 'Cam dine with me' headlines in at least two national newspapers.

After a week in which Osborne shaved £42,500 from the tax bill of an average millionaire, it doesn't look great from a 'we're all in this together' perspective.

But the lasting impression will be of a lack of transparency at the top and the murky system of party funding that refuses to be brought into the 21st century.

An abrupt U-turn followed the revelations, as Cameron yesterday agreed to publish a list of major donors who had dined at Downing Street. The same Cameron who warned in 2010 that lobbying was "the next big scandal waiting to happen", after the furore over MPs' expenses.

It should be pointed out that scandals over party funding are by no means limited to the current occupier of Number 10.

The Labour government brought us 'cash-for-honours', following claims that wealthy people who had loaned millions to Labour were to be given peerages.

There was also the loan repaid to Formula One magnate Bernie Ecclestone after questions were raised about tobacco advertising.

The Lib Dems, meanwhile, have been urged to return a £2.4m donation from convicted fraudster Michael Brown.

Worth noting, too, that the system is even less transparent in Northern Ireland, where the names of local party donors are not published for security reasons - in spite of recommendations from sleaze watchdog Sir Christopher Kelly that the same "transparency regime" should apply.

All the parties agree that something needs to be done - but no one can agree on what.

Cross-party talks began five years ago and have made little progress.

Unfortunately, in spite of a rash of headlines and new pledges to clean up the system, the prospects of reform are as remote as ever.

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