Having done something wrong, Ron Davies has tried to get it right since - and made a hash of it. Now there is speculation, frustration and shambles
Ron Davies had written it in Biro on the back of his hand before appearing before the television camera on Friday, but SORRY was a word he could hardly forget. His constituency in Wales, his Labour Party colleagues, the Prime Minister himself were all clamouring for an apology, or at least an explanation, for what had happened during the week.

Mr Davies seemed at a genuine loss for words as he outlined the "moment of madness" that led to his downfall. He could not describe what had happened on Clapham Common and at Brixton police station on Monday night and at Downing Street the following morning. He was unable to explain why he had resigned as Welsh Secretary and given up the chance to become First Secretary of Wales. He was just "deeply sorry", he said, close to tears and glancing at his hand for reassurance, and wanted "to get that message across".

There were times last week when Mr Davies's human tragedy threatened to turn into an Ayckbourn farce - with sex and drugs set neatly against the backdrop of next week's flagship consultation paper on the family. Characters scurried from one room to another, desperately trying to keep up appearances but not really sure what they should be covering up. And each time the Downing Street stage managers thought they had the plot back on track, another rogue element would pop out from behind a curtain. By Friday the Westminster rumour mill was even pumping out stories of that staple of British farce, cross-dressing.

Mr Davies drove himself up to London from Wales on Monday, exhausted after a difficult weekend. It seems he had been feeling under increasing pressure in recent weeks, run-down after the close referendum on the Welsh Assembly and drained by the battle to become the candidate to lead the group. His tiredness had been exacerbated last Sunday by the floods in his constituency and by worries about his wife Christine's illness. As he pounded down the motorway, he was overwhelmed by a sense that he could hardly cope.

When he arrived in London he did not go straight to his Battersea home, but drove to Clapham Common - a pick-up venue for gay men and a haunt of drug dealers - "to get some fresh air". Nobody knows quite what happened next. The consensus has Mr Davies falling into conversation with a stranger, a Rastafarian aged around 50. The man invited him to a house in Brixton - Mr Davies says for dinner - and he agreed to go. They got into the minister's car and drove to pick up two of the stranger's friends, one male, one female. Somewhere between Clapham and the St Matthew's estate, the man pulled a knife and told Mr Davies to stop the car. The gang held the weapon at the Welsh Secretary's throat as they rifled through his possessions and found two wallets, one in the glove compartment, one in the boot. They told him to hand over his cash and threatened to burn his car if he did not. They tried to make him draw money out of a cashpoint machine and buy alcohol at an off-licence. They grabbed his mobile phone, then they threw him out of the car and drove off, shouting that their victim should bring money to an underground car-park if he wanted to see his vehicle in one piece again.

Mr Davies was in a confused and highly distressed state as he stumbled around the streets (Downing Street insists he was not drunk). He described how the pressure had been building as he realised how much danger he was in, until it "exploded" in a "very, very tense, very unpleasant scene". He was shaking and close to tears when he eventually found a police station. There is disagreement about what happened next - some reports say Mr Davies first claimed he had been carjacked outside his home in Battersea, then changed his story. Mr Davies says that after several hours of pacing the streets with the police looking for his car, he returned to the station and gave a more "considered" view than his first account of what had happened. That night he did not sleep because he was so worried about what to do next.

ON TUESDAY morning the police telephoned Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, to inform him that a minister had been held up at knife-point. But by then Mr Davies had already asked his office to contact Downing Street and arrange a meeting. He arrived at 11 o'clock looking dishevelled, exhausted and extremely upset and was ushered straight into the Prime Minister's office. Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's press secretary, and some officials, were also present. The Welsh Secretary explained that he had decided to quit because he had had a "serious lapse of judgement" which would make his position in the Government untenable. Mr Blair asked him what had happened but after a 40-minute conversation was unable to get to the bottom of the mystery. Downing Street admits that it is still as much "in the dark" as anybody else about precisely what happened on Monday night. "There are parts of this story which we find as baffling as you do," the Prime Minister's official spokesman said. "And I think Ron is baffled by how he got himself into this situation, too."

The Labour machine acted swiftly to try to deal with the embarrassing events. Alun Michael, the Home Office minister, was interrupted at Christopher's restaurant in Covent Garden by a phone call from Downing Street summoning him to an urgent meeting. He was informed that he was about to be promoted to Welsh Secretary. The BBC was called into No 10 at 4pm for "an interview". John Sargeant, the political correspondent, assumed it was to be a boring lecture by the Prime Minister about the economy. Mr Davies was ushered into the room and announced that he had resigned. Hovering in the background as he did so was Mr Campbell. But this was news that even the godfather of spin was unable to manage.

Mr Davies had told Mr Blair that the incident on Clapham Common was an "aberration" and tried to assure him that there were no skeletons lurking in his closet. But both men knew exactly what the tabloids - and indeed the broadsheets - would make of the bizarre sequence.

And they did. There was no ambiguity in the headlines on Wednesday - the Sun declared: "Cabinet minister quits in gay sex scandal"; the Mail announced the "Gay riddle of minister". By then Mr Davies had fled London to be with his wife and 13-year-old daughter at a friend's house in Wales. He was deeply upset by the reports and consistently denied that sex or drugs had been involved.

But as Labour MPs gathered for their first meeting since the summer recess on Wednesday morning there was talk of little else. Clive Soley, chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, gave a short statement confirming that the Welsh Secre- tary had quit. But the gossip was far more lurid. "Oh yes, the rumours about Ron have been circulating for years," one minister said gleefully. Others were more cautious. "I just can't believe it," one member of the Government said. "Alcohol, yes, drugs, maybe, but Ron and gay sex? No way." Alternative theories were put forward - that Mr Davies had been trying to buy

marijuana for his sick wife, that he had been driving to see a female prostitute with a pimp. As the hot-house atmosphere intensified, speculation about the secret lives of other MPs and ministers began to surface. Matthew Parris, the Times columnist, astonished his colleagues by "outing" Peter Mandelson on Newsnight - despite the journalist's lo ng-standing opposition to such tactics from the gay pressure group Outrage. Jeremy Paxman hand-delivered a letter of apology to the Trade and Industry Secretary the following morning. At the same time, rumours about another member of the Government and r ent boys began circulating. Across London, deals were under way. Three men telephoned Max Clifford, the PR guru notorious for selling "kiss and tell" stories to the tabloids, claiming they had had homosexual encounters with Mr Davies in public toilets and on commons in Wales. At le ast one is likely to be published this weekend, in return for an estimated pounds 65,000 fee. On Thursday morning Mr Clifford got an even bigger catch - the MP's first wife, Anne, let it be known that she wanted to sell her story. Her new boyfriend, Paul Martin, telephoned the celebrity fixer offering a "package" of allegations about sex anddrug s. The interview was snapped up by the Mail on Sunday for pounds 75,000. Perhaps aware that the allegations would not die down, Mr Davies made contact with the Prime Minister again on Thursday. He had already resigned from the Cabinet but until then his allies were still insisting that he was determined to become the First Se cretary of Wales. On Thursday he realised that he would never fulfil his ambition and informed Mr Blair that he intended to pull out of that race, too. Then he went down to Brixton police station to attend an identity parade at which he was meant totry and spot a suspect who had been arrested earlier in the day.

Just as Downing Street was breathing a sigh of relief that the matter might almost be at an end, another sex scandal popped up. The Labour whip David Clelland entered stage left to announce that he was leaving his wife for his secretary. Meanwhile, with the carefully laid plans for the Welsh Assembly in tatters, the prospect of a triple whammy of rebels began to loom for the Government - Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, in charge of the Scottish Parliament; Ken Livingstone, the Labour left- winger running London; and Rhodri Morgan, the Welsh "loose cannon", deciding policy in Wales. Last week could not have gone worse for New Labour's news managers. The lesson they learnt from the Bernie Ecclestone affair was to get everything out in one fell swoop and stop the damaging drip of allegations. But they could not put that into practice with Mr Davies because they did not know everything. There was a growing frustration with the former minister in government circles by Friday: the old left-winger who had often been off-message in opposition seemed to have prevented the leadership gettin g any message across at all. "Ron's not been straight," one aide said, "in more senses than one." This week, the Government will go into act two - in which the hero Mr Blair unveils his plans to improve marriage. There will be endless column inches about the irony of its timing - but it is perhaps no coincidence. In his speech to the Labour conferenc e, the Prime Minister appealed to the press not to use the family policy "as an excuse to dredge through the private lives of every public figure". But the tabloids are hardly going to respect that now. The title of this play is "Back to Basics" andthe first lesson of politics is that governments tackle morality at their peril.

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