The curse of the North
First Northern Rock. Then those disks which went missing in Washington, Tyne and Wear. Now the mystery of the secret Newcastle donations.
The region that took Tony Blair to its heart is causing nothing but heartache for Gordon Brown.
This morning the chair of Labour's National Executive Committee, Diane Hayter, declared that "we'd set up systems that were absolutely rigorous" and - you know what - she appeared to believe it. This, mind you, just after it's been revealed that the party's top official connived in what were secret donations.
This coming after the cash-for-honours saga which, let's remember, began with secret donations - loans to Labour which were, you may recall, a way to keep donors' names out of the public domain.
Labour MPs in the north east tell me that one call to any of them would have been rigorous enough to stop this happening. Asked, "have you heard of Ray Ruddick?" they would have replied, "never heard of him - why, who is he?".
Had the reply been anything like, "he's given us over £100k in the past few weeks and he lives on your patch - he says his address is Blakelaw..." the response would have been hysterical laughter. Blakelaw is, one angry Labour MP suggested to me, a well-known estate on which, "the only way anyone there would have that sort of money is if they were very lucky or they were drug dealers".
If the conversation had become more candid - for example, "actually the money's really coming from a bloke called David Abrahams," the reply would have been, "don't touch it with a bargepole". Mr Abrahams is - let's put it this way - a "controversial figure" who's used different names, different ages, been deselected as a parliamentary candidate and has been involved in rows about the planning system.
Ms Hayter suggested this morning that alarm bells had not rung in the party because Mr Abraham's secret donations didn't come in one large sum. Hmmm. A look at the Electoral Commission register shows that Ray Ruddick of Newcastle gave over £100k in June & July as did Janet Kidd of Newcastle whilst John McCarthy of, er Newcastle, gave £35,000 (see this table).
Labour's "systems" appear to have failed because:
• If we're being told the whole story, then they relied on one person to interpret and obey the rules, who just happened to be the same person who was under huge pressure to find money to pay the bills.
• They appear to have relied on paper rather than human checks - i.e. checking whether donors were UK residents and on the electoral roll, rather than making phone calls like the one I imagine above.
• They scrapped a committee set up by Charles Clarke when he was party chairman to scrutinise large donations.
The party is still, I'm told, trawling through its accounts in an effort to discover what may lie hidden in them. They do contain donations from David Abrahams via a third individual - John McCarthy - whose entries on the Electoral Commission register (again, shown in this table) total over £200,000. The party believes that as much as half of this may, in fact, have been his own money. I am also told that a fourth name may soon emerge - giving around £20,000.
Whatever the final calculations the facts are clear. Labour allowed a "controversial" figure to secretly donate well over half-a-million pounds even after the harrowing experience of the first-ever police investigation to interview a serving prime minister. Gob smacking.