Labour can learn a lesson from Mr Hamilton's fate

REJOICE, REJOICE: Neil Hamilton is a broken man, declared "destroyed" and branded a "twit" in banner headlines. Pressed on the Today programme as to how it felt when "every single newspaper in the land condemns you", Mr Hamilton replied with some dignity that it did not feel too good, but that he would soldier on somehow.

Revelling in the destruction of any human being, even one as foolish and flawed as Mr Hamilton, brings me out in a perverse flush of sympathy. Then, just as compassion threatened to overwhelm, Mr Hamilton slipped up and reminded me and a few million others of his true nature. Asked whether he has learnt humility, he replied with the priceless oxymoron that he had indeed learned humility "in a big way". Fantastically, brilliantly, confidently humble in a major way. Elsewhere, a victorious Mohamed Al Fayed reinterpreted the meaning of Christmas by declaring that the festival of goodwill had come early and that he was going to mark it by exacting the pounds 1m costs from Mr Hamilton and to plunder the pockets of his backers to make good the shortfall. Oh come all ye vengeful.

What a morality tale, personal and political, with which to mark the dying days of the century. Here were two men who thoroughly deserved each other. Each is the catalyst of the other's misfortune. If Mr Fayed, with his warped sense of justice, had not set out to corrupt Mr Hamilton, he might yet have secured his precious British passport and spared himself the reputation of dung-fly. If Mr Hamilton had not allowed himself to be so corrupted he would not be facing financial ruin and the public shredding of his character.

It is a sorry reflection on the Tory party, which allowed Neil Hamilton, Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer to flourish and allowed them to sap the moral credibility of Conservatism. These broken men are the public symbol of a broken party, its spirit bowed and purpose squandered. William Hague is draining the chalice of humiliation to the dregs. However hard he tries to distance himself from the disasters of the Major years, they keep catching up with him, like an embarrassing relative who always find your address no matter how often you move house.

The Tory body politic is now such a shrunken, confused saddened entity that the days when it functioned at all invite a kind of nostalgia. I spent the mid-Nineties working at The Spectator, a magazine then possessed of a thoroughly misplaced confidence in the continuance of the right's domination of British politics.

English Conservatism has always placed a premium on style and Archer, Aitken and Hamilton had that certain something. Respectively, they possessed the wealth, the glamour and the witty irreverence held to be the natural gifts of Tories, the qualities that sustained the party even throughout that dull period in its leadership.

Every child knows that sleaze played a major part in Mr Major's catastrophe. The truth is more complicated. It is not so much the corruption of the individuals that inflicted such deep and lasting scars, but the utter failure of judgement about their fellows on behalf of senior figures who should have known better. Lord Harris of High Cross, the amiable libertarian peer, professed himself "astonished" by the revelation that Mr Hamilton had allegedly demanded pounds 10,000 from an oil company to table a parliamentary question. One can understand his disappointment. But why should he have been so surprised, given his friend's proven lack of candour about his financial affairs?

The repeated and continuing suspension of disbelief, the willing surrender to credulousness, has been the hallmark of a group of people incapable of facing up to the harsher truths about itself. When will they learn? Mr Hague appointed Michael Ashcroft as party treasurer, ignoring several warnings about the potential for conflict of interest. Lord Archer was endorsed as a man of "integrity", the one asset not even his closest friend would say he possessed - unless he paid them to do so.

Political tribalists will simply conclude from all this that Conservatives are more crooked than Labour and that the New Labour era could never end in such a bonfire of the vanities. However, one law is eternal in politics, namely that the higher a party's fortunes, the further it has to fall. A prolonged period in power without the cleansing filter of a robust Opposition carries risks. The first risk is that the Government fails to deliver on what it was elected to do while convincing itself that everything is going marvellously.

In the key areas Mr Blair promised to improve - health, education, the public services and, latterly, transport - his government displays a tendency to boast of having achieved a lot more than it has actually done. It indulges creative accounting to suggest that far greater amounts have been spent on schools and hospitals than is really the case: a failure of nerve, since the need to trade figures in these areas is almost always proof that the vaunted reforms are not convincing the public.

Almost half of those interviewed by Mori earlier this month felt that the Government was not keeping its promises. Inventive use of spending figures will not convince them otherwise. An accompanying danger is the unravelling of central purpose, something which tends to become visible to party leaderships only when it is too late to do much about it. Mr Blair needs to refine what he means by his pledge to "modernise" the state sector - and get on with doing so. This is the time to take really brave steps to change the inefficient structures of health and education. Yet No 10 appears to be preoccupied with the enjoyable game of stuffing the Conservatives, rather than building on its early reformist zeal.

Sleaze is no respecter of party allegiance, but the product of opportunity and the arrogance of power. The Government has been fortunate in that its own dealings over party funding and the inquiry into the former paymaster general Geoffrey Robinson's affairs - shelved this week by DTI investigators - have been eclipsed by the afterwash of Aitken and Hamilton and the fresh turbulence provided by Lord Archer. That does not mean it can afford to be less than rigorous in demanding the highest standards of probity and transparency on its own benches.

Finally, parties have most to lose when they fall for their own mythology, as the Conservatives did when they came to believe that their rule was invincible. The guardians of the Government's image should, however, be wary of creating a false personality cult around a naturally popular leader. It was unseemly of Downing Street to track down the woman on the Tube who failed to fall into a swoon of admiration just because the Prime Minister got on a train and tried to talk to her.

The Conservatives became so overweening in their self-regard that they failed to notice how much the public had come to distrust and dislike them. The surest guard against such a fate befalling New Labour's politicians is for them to look upon the fallen idols of yesterday's politics and remember that they, too, are mortal.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing