The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
May 23, 2008

Harry Phibbs feels sorry for Lord Levy - but doubts that Tony blair is feeling the same: A Question of Honour - Michael Levy

Posted by Harry Phibbs

A Question of Honour
by Michael Levy
London: Simon & Schuster, 2008
Hardback, 18.99

There is a sense of tragedy about Michael Levy, the man notorious as Labour's chief fund raiser for the "cash for peerages" controversy.

Here is a man of humble origins who was desperate to prove himself. He craved his status as being in regular and lengthy contact with Tony Blair even when Blair became Prime Minister. He was delighted to get a peerage for himself.

But the dominant theme of this volume is of a bitter, slowly understood resentment at being used. With his immense ego but great insecurity he really wanted to believe that his friendship with Tony Blair was about more than just money. But it wasn't really. So Levy is like the kid in the playground who is told: "if you share your sweets with me, I'll be your friend".

Constantly pressurised into raising more money when awkward questions started to interest not just the media but also the police, Levy was left to the fall guy.

This book is his revenge, his attempt to clear his name of wrong doing and, perhaps most of all, a kind of therapy.

Writing memoirs are such good value for money. Rather than paying a psychiatrist to unburden your troubles and have to pay a fee, how much better to write them all down, feel much better and actually get a cheque. Not that Levy really needs the money but he probably finds it satisfying to finally be getting something out of all that grubby, unpaid work rattling the tin for the Labour Party. For many years it comes across as if Tony Blair was the only one to really appreciate Levy.

Levy recalls that when he was made a peer, Peter Mandelson told him:

Michael, I guess you've got what you want now, so I assume you won't be helping the party anymore.
What made the remark especially galling for Levy was that he also raised money for Policy Network, a Blairite think tank which gave Mandelson a berth as Chairman when he was forced to resign from the cabinet for a second time. Levy says:
I had the good grace not to remind him of the remark.
As another example here is His Lordship settling an old scores with spin doctor Alastair Campbell, who before relying on the taxpayer once installed in Downing Street, relied on Levy's fund raising efforts to pay his salary during the early years in opposition, but didn't seem terribly grateful. Levy states:
He knew fundraising was important. It did, after all, help pay his salary. But he was almost ostentatiously hostile - in an oddly Old Labour way - to the very idea of personal wealth and seemed to think that asking people who had made money for support was something best left to the Tories.
Some have suggested a Blairite conspiracy in the glut of memoirs all making disobliging comments about Gordon Brown but the above examples indicate that is not the case.

Of more current relevance the Foreign Secretary David Miliband - seen by some as the most likely beneficiary if Gordon Brown is ousted - also takes some flack.
Levy recalls Miliband sending him his CV in 1997 and asking for funds to be raised establishing Policy Network, the outfit which subsequently became a vanity tank for Mandelson's benefit rather than a think tank.

Levy obliged Miliband. But he adds:

I sometimes came to feel
increasingly taken for granted by some of those, like David Miliband and Peter Mandelson, who had reason to be grateful for the results. They were not quite as
dismissive as Alastair or Gordon, of the work required to raise the money required. But nearly. They did politics. They seemed to suggest the people who who secured the resources to make their politics possible - not just me, but the dedicated professional staff in the Party - were somehow just a below-stairs means to their lofty ends.
What of the central charge against Levy? That he was an honours broker. Someone who sold knighthood and peerages. His denial of anything so crude is perfectly plausible. But why be crude when a nod and a wink will do the trick?

Levy's defence thus swerves from indignant denial to comments such as the following:

"Cash for honours", it seemed to me, had been a fact of life forever - whether in the arts, or in the world of charity, or in political parties. Over the years, long before I met Tony Blair and began helping Labour in the mid-1990s, I had raised tens of millions of pounds for charities, persuading dozens of wealthy people to give money to a range of causes in which I passionately believed. They gave out of genuine generosity. But very few of them were Mother Teresas. They hadn't amassed enormous personal wealth without also having a well-developed sense of their own accomplishments, a fierce competitiveness, a desire to get ahead, and usually the hope of some form of recognition or validation as well - their name on a old people's home, a school or an opera house, or perhaps the chance to let drop across the dinner table that they had met a prime minister or leader of the opposition. That was simple human nature. It was also a key part of the process through which all voluntary organisations secure their funding - the financial oxygen - without which they could not survive. Still, that was quite different from suggesting a direct trade off: give money and you'll get an honour in return.
Hmmm. I don't think any donors would expect a written guarantee. But they must have felt an honour was a pretty good bet if they gave enough. Levy's comments are a robust and articulate defence of "cash
for honours" rather than real refutation.

If only all donors could be like Stuart Wheeler. I remember the day he gave the Conservatives 5 million, he announced it openly. He said it reduced his wealth from 90 million to 85 million but that 85 million was still plenty for him to get by on and that he didn't want any honour or control of policy in return.

The question of finding an acceptable method of funding political parties is unfinished business. I think state financing to be the worst option, tax relief for small donations he best. Levy says he hopes Tony Blair is still his friend. It seems unlikely. In any case he has succeeded in making me feel sorry for him such is that utter pathos of his striving to be respectable.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist and a Conservative Councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham. The views expressed above are those of Harry Phibbs, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director. The Social Affairs Unit is not a party political organisation.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement