The tape recording that began the honours crisis

The tape recording that began the honours crisis

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    Yet on the day nobody even mentioned it on PBC?

With the honours probe hanging like a dark shadow over the government and being a dominant factor in the Blair exit date betting it is worth going back nearly eleven months to the Sunday Times investigation that sparked off the whole crisis for the government. For things look very different now than when the story first appeared.

At the time the term “loans for peerages” was unknown and the building political story was the threatened Labour rebellion over the Education Bill that was about to go through parliament with the Tories under their new leader adopting the novel strategy of backing Tony Blair.

The programme of special schools was the most controversial element and the newspaper secretly taped a conversation with Des Smith who had been a member of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust which had been set up by the Government to help find sponsors.

This is what appeared in the January 15 2006 edition: “..On Friday, Smith told a reporter posing as a donor’s PR assistant that “the prime minister’s office would recommend someone like (the donor) for an OBE, a CBE or a knighthood”.

“Really?” replied the reporter. “Just for getting involved with the academies?”

“Just for, yes, they call them ‘services to education’,” replied Smith. He went on: “I would say to Cyril’s office that we’ve now got to start writing to the prime minister’s office.”

Smith was even more confident about the prospect of securing an honour if the donor was willing to give as much as £10m.

“You could go to the House of Lords and get a lord . . . become a lord,” he said.

“So, if you invested in five city academies over, say, a 10-year period, it would be . . .” said the reporter.

“A certainty,” said Smith.

It is a measure of how this was seen that there was almost no reaction on PBC. Certainly at the time none of the visitors to the site felt that it was even worth mentioning. This was the thread that appeared on that Sunday and not one of the 227 contributions appears to refer to the Sunday Times investigation.

In January, of course, there was hardly any talk of honours sales being illegal or a police investigation. This was just one of those things that happened and most people seemed to have reacted like me, shrugged their shoulders and found other issues to get worked up about.

    Yet looking at the record of the taped conversation nearly eleven months on and it appears quite dramatic. And that I guess is the problem for minsters – at the time nobody ever really thought that issues like this might ever be subject to an intensive police probe.

When the story was published Smith quit his position with the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. On 13 April 2006 the Metropolitan Police arrested Smith under the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925. Shortly afterwards he was freed on bail “to return… pending further inquiries”.

    If this does develop into something more serious then Tony Blair might well ponder whether this would have all blown up if he hadn’t been so keen on his educational “reforms”.

Latest Blair leaving date betting is here

Mike Smithson

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