Moments that made the year: Brown envelopes, white knights and humping humbug

Political sleaze

1997, of course, was the year that sleaze ended. It finished on the night of 1 May, when the nation purged itself with the biggest bout of colonic irrigation in our electoral history. In one great swoosh, the cleansing waters swept round the bends of the body politic, and flushed out all the encrusted crud that had accreted over nearly 20 years. On 2 May we felt light and empty, ready for anything.

Only nine months ago, it all seemed so different. The wavy lines appear on our mental screens, and we are transported back in time and space to the middle of March. To find the Prime Minister, John Major, telling the House of Commons why the Downey report on cash-for-questions cannot be ready before the general election that he has called, just two days earlier..

Neil Hamilton wants us to see the report, too. He is anxious to remove from his reputation the taint of having been a brown envelope recipient of Mohamed al Fayed, the Mad Avenging Egyptian. Hospitality at the Ritz, well all right. Backhanders, not on your nelly. Which is why he will not stand down at the forthcoming election, but will vigorously contest his Tatton seat.

Meanwhile, the Sun captures a Beckenham Tory, Piers Merchant, in a clinch with a 17-year-old "friend of the family". Fearful that he might be discovered if he snogs the aptly named Ms Cox indoors, Merchant tries to evade scrutiny by giving her one on a park bench in public view. Momentarily disconcerted, the Sun rallies and takes the snaps. No one's business, but a great story. Especially with the erection, sorry, election, days away. Merchant survives - for the moment.

Sleaze dominates the early part of the campaign. So, back to Tatton, and enter the Man in White. Wounded war correspondent, Martin Bell, declares that he will run as the anti-sleaze candidate. And is written off by many as a naif, who will fall in the first hail of arrows, as battle begins.

On 1 May, Bell wins, Blair wins, Paddy wins, Alex wins, even Dafydd wins. But the Tories, inseparable in the public mind from sleaze, lose big time. Everyone absorbs the lessons of this, which is that there must now be full, open accountability. And a privacy law.

So we enter the dreamtime of the Blair honeymoon, during which we can deal with a few bits of unfinished business. Neil Hamilton is indicted by Downey, appeals to the Commons select committee, and gains some small sympathy when it refuses his plea that Mr Fayed be questioned.

And Piers Merchant proves the wisdom of his earlier al fresco strategy, by being filmed humping the friend under a duvet in York. Now not only is it no one's business, but no one cares. Except the Sunday Mirror, the Merchants and their Cox. Piers stands down, and the Tories hang on to the seat by a thousand votes.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, is discovered to be having an affair, admits it, separates from his wife, and lives with his lover, and - to the chagrin of the Tories, no one outside his family and circle of friends and the Daily Mail considers it their concern. Sleaze is dead!

It is replaced by a Freedom of Information Bill. The lobby system of unattributable press briefings is modified, so that "sources close to the Prime Minister" become, "the Prime Minister's Press Secretary". An era in British politics is coming to an end. We have commissioners for every form of behaviour, and all is well.

Or would be, if it hadn't been for Bernie Ecclestone. Bernie, once a donor to Tory party funds, had become a large Labour giver. He gived and he gived, until he had given a million pounds (an amount now referred to as "a bernie"). The fact of his giving was disclosed by Labour, but not the scale.

None of this might have mattered, had not the PM agreed to see Bernie and pals to discuss tobacco sponsorship of Formula One, and hear their worries that a ban might do them a whole lot of no good at all. When it was known that the Government had (a) bought Bernie's argument, and (b) earlier received a big donation, nasty suspicious minds put two and two together and came up with a million.

As the row deepened Mr Blair went on television, apologised for the misunderstanding, said that he himself had instigated sending the money back to Bernie and that he was now referring the whole matter of party funding to yet another commission.

And finally, there was Paymaster-General Geoffrey Robinson, a rich man in a poor person's party, who was found to have offshore accounts, and subjected by the Tory party and the Guardian to a flurry of resignation demands on the grounds of hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy maybe, but not sleaze. That died in 1997.

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