Wednesday, March 01, 2006

"Berlus-cronyism" - It's contagious, it seems...

It may be interesting to bring to the attention of those who absolutely don't follow the UK press that a certain disease, once thought endemic to Italy, in fact appears to be more contagious than at first thought. The pathology of the disease is often bafflingly complex; however, in layman's terms, it seems to infect the body politic, turning it rotten from the inside out. We might call it Berluscronyism, and we have just had the first reported case from the United Kingdom.

That it has been reported, but not confirmed, for some days now should not surprise anyone: it is a disease that functions by covering its own tracks, veiling its own progress behind an often bewildering array of complicated financial transactions, profoundly unlikely-sounding excuses and shrill accustations of shabby leftist conspiracies. The British strain, if it is to be proved so, has, as yet, only exhibited the first two of these techniques.

So it is that the husband of the UK Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell - the lady in charge of bringing London the olympics and charged with making it an success - stands accused of accepting a bribe from Berlusconi in exchange for giving false or misleading evidence on his behalf during an Italian investigation into alleged corruption charges. The sum involved is not negligible - in the region of at least 350,000 Sterling - and Mr. Mills (Jowell's husband), who is often characterised in the press as an "international lawyer", although I confess to not knowing exactly what that means in this context, seems to have brought these problems on himself by an act of astonishing indiscretion.

He apparently gave his accountant a letter, which mentioned a sum paid to him by the "B"(Berlusconi) people, who told him he could treat it as either a loan or a gift. The letter underlined that the transaction had had to be carried out "discretely", noting that Mills had

Kept in close touch with the "B" people... they also knew quite how much about the way in which I had been able to give my evidence (I told no lies, but turned some very tricky corners, to put it mildy) had kept Mr B out of a great deal of trouble I would have landed him in if I had said all I knew.

Mills at first told Italian investigators that the letter was "a debt of gratitude" being repaid by Berlusconi. He has, however, since retracted that statement, claiming instead that the money was paid by another client entirely, with no links whatsoever to the Italian Prime Minister, and that he had invented the Berlusconi scenario in the letter to the accountant in order to get some tax advice without having to explain the truth of where the cash had come from. A profoundly unlikely-sounding excuse...

Stories have also since emerged about the first symptom of Berluscronyism, and these have caught up Jowell herself in the scandal. A series of financial transactions, including mortgages on properties which involved the UK Culture Secretary, have been linked to the "processing" of alleged bribe, raising questions of, if not her criminal complicity, then at least of her having contravened the ministerial code of conduct. These transactions have been described by one investigator as "the craziest, most complex network I have ever seen". We are currently waiting for the outcome of an inquiry by the Cabinet Secretary into Jowell's role in this.

The story does not end there, however, because today's newpapers are full of the news of suspicions that another - indeed, perhaps the paradigmatic - symptom of Berluscronyism has been detected within the UK Government: the subversion and abuse of official rules and procedures for personal and professional gain. The inquiry, then, has been extended to the role played by the Home Office in allegedly interfering with Italian attempts to have Mills extradited to face charge. It remains to be seen whether this is mere tabloid wishful thinking, or whether any serious wrongdoing has occurred; more and more, however, this saga does seem to be bearing all the peculiar hallmarks of the Italian Prime Minister.

It is to be hoped, then, that Lorenzo's frequent posts below on Berlusconi are accurate, and that his tenure is coming to a somewhat sticky end: perhaps the only way to prevent this disease - which is, of course, only a particularly virulent and public strain of a very old illness - from spreading any further is to stamp it out at source. Even that, however, may well be too little, too late - almost certainly so, in terms of Tessa Jowell's career at least...

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