Leading Article: The fine line between public life and privacy

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LAST MONTH, Tony Blair declared to his party conference in Blackpool that politicians deserve a degree of privacy and respect. He warned the media not to "dredge through the private lives of every public figure" and he asked the public to accept that "individual weaknesses" do not undermine "collective strength".

This week, the Prime Minister faced the first test of his beliefs with the resignation of Ron Davies, the Welsh Secretary, over a personal affair. He could well be said to have failed the challenge, nothwithstanding the fact that Mr Davies may have been less than forthcoming in what he told him.

On the face of it, nothing that Mr Davies has done, or others have speculated that he was about to do, suggests that he has failed to do his job. Mr Davies was attacked and robbed by three people after picking up a stranger in south London's Clapham Common on Monday evening: his own car, his wallet and his House of Commons pass were taken at knife point. He says he had a "serious lapse of judgement" which demanded his Cabinet resignation. But he also argues it was a personal matter which is unworthy of further explanation.

The difficulty is, of course, that such economy with the facts leaves all the important questions unanswered. No one has suggested that being a crime victim alone is worthy of losing one's job. Judging by other Cabinet members, few would have expected Mr Davies to resign if he had announced that he is gay or resorted to prostitutes. Has he therefore gone because of infidelity to his wife, or for being caught in an area well-known as a pick-up point for gays, or because he was involved in other less legal activities, such as drugs?

Now both Davies and the Government face dilemmas. Davies, if he maintains his candidacy for the job of first secretary of the Welsh Assembly, will seem to be cutting his losses in Cabinet in an attempt to save his future job. If he is deemed unfit for his job in Cabinet, why would he be fit for one in Cardiff?

Blair too, seems to be trying to have it both ways. As an opportunity to replace a Cabinet colleague whom he doesn't like with one he does, this was too good a chance to miss. More important for him, he is keen to avoid the sort of mess Major allowed in the previous government: letting newspapers hound ministers out of office. There could have been little quite so brutal, or so uncompassionate, as the way that Jack Cunningham booted his former colleague into the realms of "has beens" at his master's request on Radio 4's Today programme yesterday

So what, then, of earlier appeals for tolerance of individual weakness? What of the right of politicians not to have their private lives "dredged up" to compromise their professional careers? Still more, what of those who believe that it is time that an individual should be able to pursue his sexual life in whatever direction, without shame and humiliation? The questions left hanging in the air by Ron Davies's statement cannot be treated as just pleas for privacy. They also act as fuel to the fire of assumed prejudice.

Ron Davies has not been open and honest over this affair. By refusing to make clear why he had to go, the Government has not been albe to clarify where the line should be drawn between personal morality and public interest. In this case, the police appear to have made arrests and recovered the stolen car. The chances are that a trial will follow, and more details will out anyway. If Ron Davies wants to head the Welsh Assembly in the future, he owes it to the electorate there to explain what he did, and why he considers that there are different standards for politicians to follow in Westminster and Wales.

If the Prime Minister wants to talk about the importance of the family and having politicians who can be trusted, he must explain what sort of behaviour he considers to be inappropriate. Does he stick by his speech at Blackpool as a guide to the proper realm of politicians' private affairs? Or does the current disposal of a wayward minister indicate that anyone who steps out of line is a fair target for criticism?