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by RAY FLEMING
TONY Blair said at his monthly media conference yesterday morning: “As ever, the buck stops with me.” As ever, in his most disarming manner, he accepted responsibility for the fact that the treasurer of the Labour Party, Jack Dromey, knew nothing about undisclosed large loans made to the party instead of outright donations. Mr Blair's desk must be groaning under the weight of the bucks that have piled up on it just recently. The prime minister made another remark that was very telling. He pointed out that Labour had reformed the rules on party funding after it was elected in 1997, making the process more open and transparent. That was a perfectly fair claim to make but in doing so Mr Blair left himself open to the comparison between Labour's “purer than pure” ambitions then and its distinctly impure reputation now. There are just too many questionable issues arising about the way in which the government and some of its ministers go about their business. In criticising how the loans were arranged and handled, and their connection to the ennoblement of those who made them, Mr Dromey articulated perfectly the anxiety of many “Old Labour” MPs and party members who sense that Mr Blair has led the way in getting too close to “big money”. At least Mr Dromey's allegations seem to have sparked action from the prime minister. He announced yesterday that he is considering changes to take “the politics out of the honours system”, perhaps by delegating responsibility to the civil service. He also said that he plans to establish a new independent adviser on ministers' interests; this is something that he has refused to do time after time, but perhaps the continuing problems of Tessa Jowell have finally persuaded him that change is necessary. The revelation of the loans, made instead of donations and thus not declared, and the evidence from Mr Dromey of the gulf between government and party, will have hurt Mr Blair politically. Again, the questions arise: how long can he last?; how long can he want to last? Will the Education Bill, now on its way, be the last hurrah of his reform programme?