Leading article: Better wine and women than spies in the bedroom

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AS OUR politicians head for their 11-week break, let us not fall too easily into the assumption that they will all be sipping champagne or Soave on Tuscan verandas the whole time. It is perfectly possible both to be critical of MPs' productivity when they are at Westminster and to think that they should spend more time away from the hothouse. Michael Brown, the Conservative former MP, made the argument well in our pages yesterday. He pointed out that MPs have families. They have gutters that need attention and rotten window frames to be replaced. Their term-time evenings are spent in boring meetings. Their weekends are public property. Let them at least have a half-decent holiday.

The European Convention on Human Rights says: "Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life." It does not go on to say: "Except elected representatives, who shall account for their movements on a quarter-hourly basis." Nor does it have an exclusion clause for anyone whose idea of a "private and family life" does not conform to the saintly example set by the Prime Minister.

Indeed, most MPs would not be noticed if they got up in the House of Commons and revealed that they had solved all the problems of welfare reform and succeeded where Frank Field failed. But if they snog a 17-year- old on a park bench the hounds of tabloid hysteria are let loose. The same apparently applies to the President of the United States. Bill Clinton has not deposed the elected leaders of other countries, lost thousands of American lives in morally indefensible wars on the other side of the world, or burgled his political opponents. He has spent some time alone with a consenting adult, and yet the sky of moral condemnation has fallen in.

It is possible to argue that the private morality of political leaders does matter, but this is a kind of modern Puritanism. It is a false extension of the early-Eighties feminist assertion that "the personal is political". The claim then was that the issue of how men and women treated each other at a personal level was a proper object of political action. But the argument was about general principles in the rules of engagement in the battle of the sexes. The behaviour of individual men was not at issue.

Equally, it is possible to argue that, in a non-ideological age, and at a time when voters are more cynical than ever before about politics and the motives of politicians, political leaders are forced back on their personal lives as a testimonial of their probity. Mr Blair, with his Christian beliefs , is perhaps the most perfect example. But this tendency is dangerous precisely because of the exclusive nature of Puritanism.

If we allow political leaders to be judged on their private conduct when they break no laws, the rules of acceptable private conduct are bound to be drawn tighter and tighter, from monogamy to Christian marriage to always writing thank-you notes. Eventually a purer-than-pure morality would be defined by self-appointed commissars and no practising politician would be able to qualify.

Politicians like the Prime Minister should be wary. Mr Blair's attempt to "remoralise politics" has already led to misunderstandings over his attitude to abortion, lone parenthood, homosexuality and the Foreign Secretary's marital travails. He has tried to say that neither his Christianity nor his advocacy of strong families means that he wants to turn the clock back on equal rights for women or homosexuals. And he has tried to say that he will judge his ministers by their competence in their jobs, not their private affairs. So should we all.

Robin Cook may have behaved badly by many people's standards of personal morality. Mr Clinton may have behaved worse. But unless he is found guilty of abusing his power in order to obtain sexual favours - a charge to which Ms Lewinsky's claims are irrelevant - his conduct should have no bearing on his fitness to govern.

Give our MPs a break, then. This week's emphasis on performance indicators for the Government was a welcome move in the right direction. It should be extended to MPs, who should be expected to work office hours and be accountable for it, whether in Westminster or in their constituency. But when they clock off, their lives should be their own.