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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
News
The 67P/CG comet as seen from the Philae lander
scienceThe most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
film
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Koenig, creator of popular podcast Serial, which is to be broadcast by the BBC
tvReview: The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play detective
News
Ruby Wax has previously written about her mental health problems in her book Sane New World
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

    £25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

    Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

    £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

    £25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

    £25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas