Return of the Yeo-Yeo kid

Twelve months ago he was in disgrace. But an awful lot of Tory scandals have flowed under the bridge since then ... could Tim Yeo, consummate politician, be positioning himself for a comeback?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Tim Yeo, the Conservative MP for Suffolk South, was 50 last week. He and his wife threw a drinks party at the flat they keep in London, overlooking the Thames, along from the House of Commons towards the Tate Gallery. Just over a year ago, when the News of the World revealed that Yeo, then a minister, had an eight-month-old baby by a solicitor and Tory councillor called Julia Stent, and another 27-year-old, out-of-wedlock child by a student nurse, there was disgrace, an avalanche of "Love Cheat Minister" headlines, a resignation and the usual jokes about the minister's briefs. This year it was drinks with Norman and John and everyone and just the slightest hint of a comeback under way.

We met one evening last week at the House of Commons, Yeo striding alertly into the lobby. During the scandal, when it became apparent that Yeo's affair with Stent had started at a Conservative Party conference, Today newspaper painted him as a reveller in "the sexually-charged atmosphere of political power-broking". This was, surely, pushing it a bit. Conservative Party conferences are, generally speaking, about as sexually-charged as a tub of carpet-tile adhesive.

Still, one can't help, on first meeting, looking for traces in Yeo of the Lothario, the silvery charmer. He is well over 6ft tall, commandingly courteous. There is a slight wave in his thoroughly groomed hair. His voice is low and plummy and precise to the point where he pronounces the "h" in "East Bergholt", the village in his constituency where he lives. (People who actually come from round there tend to call it "East Bergolt".) And though his suit that day was the traditional backbencher's navy blue number, and his tie the tie of the Royal Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews (Yeo is a 13 handicap), the outfit included soft black, possibly Italian, definitely stylish loafers, thin and smooth - slippery, as it were.

We had intended to make the 10-minute walk from the House to Yeo's flat, but Yeo needed to stay around for two more votes before the end of the day, so we adjourned to a small meeting room, where Yeo could keep his eye on the television monitor and respond to the summons of the division bell.

In between votes we talked, and it became rapidly apparent that Tim Yeo has the politician's rhetoric off pat. It informs his smallest talk. If you were to wish him a happy birthday, the chances are he would reply: "Clearly, birthdays are a source of some considerable pleasure in the short term; but one must retain a sense of perspective and keep one's mind on the possibility of other, further birthdays in the future." And then would come the paragraph-closing smile and the look which says, "And your next remark?"

It's heroic, really, what politicians do - that almost total commitment to an absence of humour, that complete eradication of irony, that thorough purging of self-doubt. They do all this for us. And the carapace is impenetrable. The show never lets up. It's not that - in a mood of extraordinary optimism, post Kenneth "the gaffer" Clarke - I had gone along expecting Tim Yeo to be a chortling, tie-loosening bag of indiscretion, a wind-machine for fearless, on-the-record bawdy. But neither was I quite prepared for the completeness of his rhetorical act, his Ciceronian roundedness.

My early, mild and entirely un-Humphrys-inspired inquiry as to whether, even fleetingly, during those uproarious days in January 1994, Yeo had wondered whether his position was irrecoverable, was met with this: "I think in every problem there is an opportunity, in every challenge there is something from which satisfaction can be derived." The tilt of the head. The smile. Maybe this is how you get by. And maybe this is how you come back.

Yeo grew up in the countryside in Sussex. He was raised in the Church of England but says he has grown agnostic. He went to Charterhouse where he reckons his career was "characterised by a total lack of distinction", but where he nevertheless won an exhibition to Cambridge. He studied history and economics. "History," he said, "is a very good training for politics. You realise that practically nothing new ever happens at all, that the contempt with which many members of the public currently hold politicians has been seen in almost every previous generation. In the 18th century, there were mobs breaking the windows of politicians' houses in central London."

It didn't occur to Yeo to become a politician until 1971, four years after he had left university. "I was rather turned off by university politicians. There was a tremendous rivalry within the Cambridge University Conservative Association and the same thing in the Labour club, and it seemed to me rather academic and a bit petty." By the time he stood for his first seat as a councillor, he was into his second job in the City.

By Christmas 1993, he'd had a largely untroubled spell as John Major's Minister of State for the Environment - weathering with tact the EC's dismayed ruling on the state of our beaches and the inevitable "Hands off our Golden Mile" backlash. But then, on Boxing Day, the news broke - of grown-up Rebecca, of baby Claudia-Marie. And the papers hit the hypocrisy button, casting back to remarks Yeo had made while he was junior health minister, during a rewrite of the adoption laws, which called into question the right to adopt of smokers, gays and single mothers.

The outcome of the furore was virtually formulaic. Yeo said he wouldn't resign, and then promptly resigned. Mrs Yeo said she would stand by her husband, and did. Yeo said that he had behaved foolishly. And Julia Stent did Hello! - seven pages of baby snaps and a glowing tribute to Yeo's parental care and concern. (Yeo would not tell me whether he now has any contact with his children outside his marriage.)

Should politicians, I asked, practice what they preach?

"One of the advantages of the political system is that voters do have an opportunity, maybe not as regularly as they would like, but fairly regularly, to pass judgement on politicians. And therefore, if politicians don't provide voters with what those voters expect, they may find their career is brought to a very sudden halt. Public accountability is a proper part of the political system. It's a discipline on politicians which other professions don't have."

But there's no accountability when politicians keep things secret ...

"In Parliament, people know their colleagues - they know who is reliable in a crisis and who isn't. It's quite difficult for anyone to sustain an impression that isn't soundly based."

Naturally, when the hypocrisy in question was supporting a state education system while sending your child to a public school, in the manner of Tony Blair, Yeo's attitude was crisper.

"But I don't like to use the word `hypocritical'. I prefer `surprising' or `inconsistent'. It's fair to expect a degree of consistency from politicians."

But what about in Yeo's case: wasn't it hypocritical, surprising and inconsistent to talk about family values, knowing what he knew?

"I don't think if you read every column of Hansard in the last 12 years, you would find any reference by me to `family values'. I don't think if you studied the reports of the Conservative Party conferences I've attended and spoken at, you'd find any reference to `family values'. As far as I know, the only statement on `family values' that I made was in 1990, to a local news reporter outside the Bury St Edmunds office of Relate, in connection with an application they were making to the Home Office for financial support. One statement on the record then gets reproduced dozens of times and gives rise to an impression which is not wholly accurate. I make no complaint about this. It's a hazard of public life."

This is how you come back from a political scandal, if you're Tim Yeo MP. You go back to your constituency and check on the support of your constituents and your party. You discover that, by and large, they're with you all the way. (Or that's what Yeo says.) You begin to publish a few uncontroversial, environment-related pieces of journalism in Country Life. Also some articles on golf.

You then start, slowly but surely, to work yourself back into prominence from the back benches. You pick a few issues and "try and keep in touch with the key players". You sit on the employment committee and discuss the pay of top executives in newly privatised companies. And in a year's time, if you're really lucky, you find yourself out-sleazed by subsequent events and in a position, as a scandal veteran, to publish an article in the Daily Mail on the resignation of Rupert Pennant-Rea, the former deputy governor of the Bank of England, which could just possibly be an argument for your own position.

"What one demands of a banker," Yeo told me, "is one thing; what one demands of a priest is something again; and what one demands of a politician is something different again. The question to ask is: is he any good at his job? Does what has been revealed affect his capacity to continue in his job? There should be a rational and objective analysis of how those criteria do differ. I might not think that matters to do with my banker's private life had much to do with me."

I asked if, after his own experiences, he was in favour of restraints on the press.

"We must recognise that newspapers will respond to their markets. If the public appetite for stories which feature prominently in the tabloids exists - and judging by their sales figures, it does - we may consider that a deplorable reflection on public taste, but it is a fact and we must live with it.

"And rather than denying people the opportunity to publish or read, we should put it in some kind of context and say, `Well, is this relevant?' In which case, it could have been said to the deputy governor of the Bank of England, `If you feel you wish to carry on and deal with this difficulty in your life, then that's all right'."

And was he confident now that he could pull himself entirely clear? Was there no damage to his future ministerial prospects?

"People will have drawn their own conclusions about what sort of person I am," he said, "and I don't think anything I can say now will change that."

The tilt of the head. The smile.

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