Tony Blair is paying the price for ignoring the importance of upholding standards in public life, the official anti-"sleaze" watchdog warned yesterday.
Sir Alistair Graham, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said that Mr Blair had seen standards as "a peripheral, minor issue not worthy of serious consideration".
As a result, he said, Labour was now regarded as being just as "sleazy" as John Major's Conservative Government.
"I think it's a major error of judgment," Sir Alistair said.
"Opinion polls show the public think this Government is as sleazy as the last. He has paid a heavy price for ignoring standards. We would have preferred more positive support from the Prime Minister. We suspect he is pretty luke-warm to the work we do."
His intervention comes as Scotland Yard continues to investigate claims that peer-ages were awarded in return for loans or donations to Labour Party funds, or for sponsoring Mr Blair's flagship city academies.
Sir Alistair said he was particularly troubled by the disclosure that the Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury, had secretly lent the party £2 million to help bankroll its General Election campaign.
"That really causes difficulty for everyone," he said. "If a political party is relying on ministerial financial contributions that we are not immediately aware of, I think that is very damaging."
Sir Alistair also expressed concern about the disclosures over Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's affair with his Civil Service diary secretary, Tracey Temple.
"You can get a situation where a Minister is subject to such ridicule and scorn that their position becomes very difficult," he said.
The central issue, he said, was whether a Minister had taken advantage of his public position or breached accepted codes of conduct.
"If you involve a junior member of staff you increase the risk. There is a duty of care as far as any member of staff is concerned," he said.
"I always think it is very important that people shouldn't put members of the civil service they may have been working with at risk, as far as their future career is concerned."
Sir Alistair said, however, that he had been encouraged by the attitude of Chancellor Gordon Brown - Mr Blair's expected successor - who he met last month.
"I was pleasantly surprised how interested he was in the issues. I think that is a helpful sign," he said.
Sir Alistair complained that Mr Blair had done little to address the issue of breaches
of the Ministerial Code of Conduct. He dismissed the appointment of the head of the National Audit Office, Sir John Bourn, as an adviser on the issue.
"I have spoke time after time about ministerial breaches of the Code of Conduct to try to get the Government to introduce new arrangements for improving the investigations relating to the alleged breaches," he said.
"While Sir John Bourn is a man of the highest standing, he has no discretion to intervene in his own right - he has to wait until he has been asked to intervene by the Prime Minister - there is no guarantee that his reports will be published, and the Government has not given an assurance that when Sir John is replaced there will be consultation with the opposition."
Education Minister Jim Knight said he disagreed with Sir Alistair's views.
"He was appointed by the Prime Minister who set up a whole new process of monitoring and reporting on these issues, who changed the law in respect of these issues, which demonstrates quite how serious Tony Blair was about cleaning up politics," he said.
"The fact that some of these things have come to light that have raised widespread concerns have precisely been because we take it seriously enough to disclose these things."
He said he thought the "right moves" were now being taken to address issues around fundraising.