By Lord Michael Levy
Simon & Schuster, £18.99
In July 2006, Lord Levy, Tony Blair’s chief fund-raiser and personal envoy to the Middle East, was enjoying a birthday lunch with his family when he was told by his solicitor to report to Colindale police station, in North London, where he was going to be arrested. A Question of Honour describes in graphic detail the purgatory he and his family endured for over a year before he was released without charge.
Levy was suspected of having solicited money for Labour by promising honours in return. New Labour, if it wanted to escape being in hock to the trades unions, had to rely, like the Conservatives, on handouts from millionaires. But after the year 2000, when the parties were required to make public all donations over £5,000, many were deterred from giving.
Therefore, the parties began to solicit loans which, at the time, did not need to be declared. Of 12 individuals who gave loans to Labour before the 2005 general election, seven were made peers.
Yet only one person has ever been convicted of selling honours, and that was in the 1920s. The reason is not far to seek. For, unless someone puts an offer in writing, it is impossible to prove a connection between the cheque and an honour.
There is certainly no evidence that Levy promised “honours for cash”, nor that the seven were honoured primarily because of the loans that they had made. Still, the story is not very edifying, and Levy is right to say that the answer lies in the public funding of political parties.
Levy himself was certainly well qualified for the Lords. He was not only an extraordinarily generous donor to a wide range of charities, but, after selling his music business, he devoted much of his life to charitable work. Few of his critics can claim as much.
His book is not just concerned with cash-for-peerages, however. There is also much fascinating material on the Middle East. According to Levy, a peace agreement between Israel and Syria was tantalisingly close in the year 2000, and was frustrated solely by Ehud Barak’s unwillingness to commit himself publicly to restoration of the 1967 borders, though perfectly prepared to argue for it in private.
Levy sees himself as a serious player, and probably exaggerates his influence — except in the case of honours, where he is anxious to minimise it. Yet he was perhaps more crony than politician. Prime Ministers need cronies, men prepared to listen sympathetically while they blow off steam about their colleagues. Tony Blair was no exception.
Though leader of a party dedicated to improving the lot of the poor, Blair much preferred the company of the rich. “What is your religion?” Undershaft, the arms manufacturer, is asked in Shaw’s Major Barbara. “I am a millionaire, that is my religion,” he replies. It seems for a time to have become the religion of the Labour Party as well.
The main lesson which Levy draws from his experiences is “that if you look for good qualities in people you almost always find them”. He is nice about everyone — Tony Blair, George Bush, Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, even the police inspectors who question him. There is just one exception: Gordon Brown, who, so Levy insinuates, without offering the slightest evidence, was involved in cash-for-honours.
Yet Brown does not court the rich, nor has he ever been accused of sleaze or of making dubious appointments to peerages.
Lord Levy did a lot for Labour. But Labour also did a lot for him, giving him a peerage and a public profile. It is a pity that he has chosen to disfigure his essay in vindication with spiteful allegations against its current leader, allegations that are bound to damage the party he claims to love.
Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government at Oxford University