The rise and fall of High Moral Tone: How Labour slid into sleaze

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Indy Lifestyle Online
On the third Sunday of October 1996, the new Prime Minister attended church with his wife and young family. Three days after his election to head the first Labour government in Britain for 17 years, he was more preoccupied than he would have liked during the service. His mind kept wandering to his new responsibilities.

This was particularly so during the first reading - nervously delivered by one of the older churchgoers of this north London parish - which was from the 18th chapter of Genesis. The Lord threatens to destroy Sodom, for its iniquities, but Abraham persuades him to save the place if fifty righteous men' can be found there. Then Abraham, clearly something of a realist, progressively beats God down, until He agrees to put the thunderbolt on hold if only five unblemished citizens are discovered.

When the reader reached the line, But suppose there are only ten righteous men?', the Prime Minister's burly press secretary, who insisted on accompanying him even to church, leant across and whispered: Bit like trying to select a cabinet.' The Prime Minister smiled. The same thought had occurred to him. Back in the study at 10 Downing Street lay the scratched-out and crumpled-up pages of their attempt to arrange 30 righteous men and women in to a cabinet. Righteousness was particularly important because the Labour leader was on frequent public record as promising a sleaze-free administration. However, like Abraham, they had soon come to wonder if the numbers they were seeking might not be a little ambitious.

As the Prime Minister left the church, a reporter asked whether he had said a prayer inside for the Conservative prime minister he had defeated, who was already being eviscerated by his party in an orgy of in-fighting between left and right.

Flashing the bashful grin that had become his signature, the Prime Minister said: As I've said before, I think my religion is a private matter.'

This was not strictly true. Polling throughout the campaign had indicated that the Labour leader's Christianity - and general personal integrity and cleanliness - had been a decisive bonus in an election in which the probity of public life had become a central subject. In four and a half years in power, the Major administration had lost 28 ministers, junior ministers or aides to sexual or financial scandal, while many of those ministers who had retired without scandal had immediately taken highly paid positions on the boards of companies they had privatised.

The spate of resignations had increased after the publication of the first report into standards in public life by Lord Justice Nolan's committee. Lord Nolan had become known as the Watchfinder General after recommending the departure of one junior minister over accepting a Rolex as a gift from a businessman. The British press had applied Lord Nolan's new guidelines strictly and retrospectively, and, in an echo of America, one politician had left office over his nanny, or rather - it was vital to specify these days - the nannying arrangements for his children.

Accordingly, the Labour election campaign had majored on sleaze. The high point of a deliberately sombre closing rally in Sheffield had been the lines in the Labour leader's speech: People have always said that elections are about the money in your pocket. Well, this one is about the money in their pockets]' Labour candidates around the country had used the slogan: Please, no sleaze]'

The party also used a controversial series of poster advertisements. One consisted of a photograph of pigs eating from a trough, with the copyline: A Tory Minister At Work.' Another showed two fat men sitting in adjoining baths, scratching each other's backs with loofahs, above the slogan: The Relationship Between Tories And Big Business.' A third showed a pinstripe suit and white shirt, stained with claret, food and lipstick, with a Sketchley's ticket attached, and the slogan: Time To Take Tory Standards To The Cleaners.'

A couple of liberal commentators had pointed out the paradox that the Labour campaign - accusing the Conservatives of sleaze and, by extension, promoting the decency of Labour - had been one of the dirtiest and most negative in political memory. As the Labour government was starting office with a majority of only five - and would need Liberal Democrat support on most occasions to proceed with legislation - the ruthless promotion of honesty had clearly not been an unequivocal vote-winner, but it had been enough. So associated had the new Prime Minister become with the pledge to clean up public life that one of the parliamentary sketch-writers, punning on the leader's Christian name, Anthony, had taken to calling him High Moral Tone'.

In the study of No 10 on that evening of the third Sunday in October, the Prime Minister looked with some satisfaction at the just-completed list of the first cabinet of his first administration. The press secretary had been sent home to watch his football videos, because the premier was receiving his first secret briefing from the head of MI5, who now sat opposite him, meekly stirring her tea.

Prime Minister,' she said, I thought before you announced your first cabinet, there were things you might like to know '

She pulled out a handful of thin dirt-brown folders from the attach case on her knees. She pushed the first across the desk. The premier recognised on its cover the name of a colleague, on whose appointment to a senior position of state he had just decided. He read the carefully typed pages, recognising places and the names of individuals and what he assumed to be clubs or restaurants. Soon, however, he reached a wholly unfamiliar noun.

What exactly is that?' he asked, indicating the word.

Which? Oh, yes, that. It's a sexual act between men, Prime Minister,' said the head of MI5. More common than you might think. What you do is, you put your ' Yes, yes. I think I'll settle for the headline details,' said the premier quickly.

He closed the file without comment, and opened the second, which his guest had slid across the blotter. Inside this one, as well as typed sheets, were a number of grainy black and white photographs. A member of his party, pencilled in for a junior ministerial position at the Home Office, was pictured wearing a paper hat at what was clearly a celebration of some kind.

He was chinking champagne glasses with a jowly, red-faced man in middle age.

Isn't that?' began the Prime Minister.

Yes. Of course, the corruption charges against his company were never made to stick. I mean, it might be said: why shouldn't a politician go to his birthday party? He's technically innocent. It's just, with the stand you took in your campaign '

The third folder had slithered towards him. He batted it back.

No,' he said. I don't even want to know what's in that one '

Much later, when the books about the downfall of this government were written, there would be three theories about why the Prime Minister ignored the advice he was believed to have been given about prospective members of his government.

One view was that the basic decency and good nature of the Prime Minister made it impossible for him to believe his colleagues capable of such behaviour: rather as Queen Victoria had declined to make lesbianism illegal because she refused to accept that it occurred. The second theory was that the procedural rules of the Labour Party - by which the first cabinet of the administration is elected by MPs - had left the leader with no option but to use colleagues whose ethics he might know to be dubious. The third interpretation of events was that the security services had cynically seen in the promise of cleaner government a chance to smear, and keep from government, Labour members of whose opinions or lifestyles they disapproved.

But, for whatever reason, the Prime Minister kept to the cabinet list that he had originally prepared.

Almost a year later, on the evening of the second Saturday in September 1997, the Prime Minister's press secretary telephoned him at Chequers. He had seen the first editions of a Sunday tabloid newspaper, which reported - with photographs and photocopies of cheques and hotel bills - on the friendship between a Labour minister and a businessman. The tycoon had been one of the first to edge his allegiances towards Labour in the mid-Nineties, when Conservatism began to seem doomed.

The minister insisted that he was innocent, but - unlike Tories in similar, earlier circumstances - too poor to sue. With extracts from his 1996 campaign rallies playing on news bulletins - Please, no sleaze]' the crowd kept chanting - the Prime Minister felt he had no option but to demand his colleague's resignation. Led by their new, young, right-wing leader, the Conservative opposition brayed charges of hypocrisy. From the upper chamber, Lord Heseltine of Henley roared: Labour said they'd give the people change.

If only we'd understood they meant the change left over from their sleazy financial deals]'

Each day seemed to bring another newspaper story of small or large corruption involving members of the Labour government. There was the Gaddafi's Pony' scandal, in which a backbencher was revealed to have bought a farm for himself and a horse for his daughter, despite a pre-parliamentary career as a lowly paid union official. The member's record of support for, and visits to, the Libyan regime led to a tabloid front page picture of the young girl proudly riding Jason', her 12-hands Exmoor cross, beneath the headline: GADDAFI'S PONY?' Another paper referred to the animal as: LIBYA'S TROJAN HORSE.

A junior minister was revealed to have spent his first Christmas in power on a Caribbean island as the guest of an industrial giant that had recently made its first ever contributions to the Labour Party. Early contracts awarded by the Ministry of Transport seemed to have favoured companies run by a self-made businessman with roots in a Labour stronghold constituency, where he and a new minister in the department had been closely associated in local government. When he read this story, the Prime Minister recognised it from one of the files the head of MI5 had shown him. The same birthday party photograph of the two men was even there. The Watchfinder General had already been on the phone, demanding submissions from No 10 on these cases.

Was I naive?' the premier asked his press secretary. Should I have realised all this was going on?'

How long has it been going on? That's the question. You never know how honest a politician is until he gets into government. It's easy to be clean in opposition. There's no temptation. No one feeds the horse's arse when they can feed its mouth. Also, there's the question of what you might call whores for courses. Tory sleaze is in the City; ours is in local government '

Perhaps,' said the Prime Minister. But we seem to have gone rotten in less than 15 months. It took the Tories 15 years.'

Oh, well. Sleaze stories flourish when the press has turned against a government. The Tories got that at the end. For your administration, the knives were out at the beginning. Also, of course, you had made this specific issue a main plank of your campaign.'

What can I do now?'

Not a lot, frankly. Remember how Major's stand on morality licensed the press to sniff the sheets of any Tory politician? Well, I'm afraid your stand on sleaze has licensed them to go through all the cheque-book stubs and credit card slips of our lot.'

Looking at the newspaper headlines - in which he was now referred to as Low Moral Tone - the Prime Minister said to his press secretary: This is monstrous. I am an honest man. I have done nothing wrong.'

have been honest. Absolutely. But you can only promise to keep your own nose clean. You can't go round blowing everybody else's. You've just got to hope they carry a handkerchief.'

Broadly sympathetic editorials in the liberal press suggested that the Prime Minister had perhaps - from his earliest days as Labour leader - made the mistake of thinking that scandal was partisan: that his own party was inherently more honest than the Conservatives. In fact,' one leader writer remarked, it is now clear that some of his colleagues remained clean in opposition not from principle, but because they were simply not allowed close enough to the trough; because no branch-line service of the Gravy Train ran through their constituencies at the time.'

The Prime Minister's speech to his party conference in late September 1997 needed to be entirely rewritten to remove any reference to morality.

In early October, the head of MI5 requested another private meeting with the Prime Minister. After rather edgy pleasantries, she removed another three folders from her briefcase. The first was worryingly bulky and, when he saw the name on the front, the Prime Minister blanched and began to count his majority on the fingers of one hand.

This pledge of yours to clean up British government,' she said. It's keeping us very busy.'