Political scandals and resignations, along with Tory leadership travails, are my specialist subjects. I relish them. Since I became a journalist following my defeat at the 1997 general election, I am called by every media outlet, especially television, whenever a minister or MP is engulfed by a media frenzy. Robin Cook, Ron Davies, Nicholas Brown, Michael Portillo, Peter Mandelson, Stephen Byers, Edwina Currie/John Major, Chris Bryant, Boris Johnson, and now David Blunkett have all indirectly contributed to my freelance broadcasting income. Living near the Millbank television studios means that I can be on air within moments of a breaking Sunday-newspaper story.
I should feel shame at profiting from these events. But I don't. The sense of schadenfreude goes back over a decade, to the day when I was myself plastered over the front page of the News of the World on 8 May 1994. Little did I realise on that black day just how beneficial to my career the experience would eventually turn out to be.
I had been accused of having sex in Barbados with a gay man, Adam Morris, a student who, though aged 20, was under the age of consent, which was then 21. (Ironically, the law changed to 18 later that summer.) It was actually a rather innocent week, recorded in holiday snaps and similar to previous holidays I had enjoyed there, including one in the company of Michael Portillo and John Whittingdale and their respective wives. But the photographs were stolen by a jealous fellow-student, Paul Birrell, who sold them to the News of the World for a reported £10,000. And they certainly looked exotic and incriminating.
The basic allegation was that a lawmaker was a lawbreaker. Whatever my arguments with the details, the overall story was probably justified. I had acted irresponsibly, considering that I was employed by HM Government to uphold party discipline, and was perceived to have fallen short of the standards expected at the time.
I only got wind of the story when my colleague David Davis, the neighbouring MP and junior minister (ironically, now Mr Blunkett's Tory shadow) phoned me on the Saturday lunchtime at my constituency home to say that Downing Street had informed him that the paper had been in touch with them. "Get the hell out of your house, and get over to me now," he said. Utterly terrified, I drove the 40 miles to him so fast that I even picked up a speeding ticket. Nobody, except my neighbours, who looked after my house in my absence, knew where I was.
There then followed an afternoon waiting for the first edition of the paper to be faxed to Davis's home. But he had already taken complete control of my brain and advised that, in the wake of the "back to basics" furore that had earlier claimed Tim Yeo, and the earlier David Mellor saga, there was no way I could survive a subsequent media squall by trying to "tough it out".
In these circumstances, I decided that I didn't want to cling on, only to be dumped by "the system" a week later. Upon receiving the gory details of the front page, and once the other papers' last-edition deadlines had passed, I faxed a one-line statement at 1am to Chris Moncrieff of the Press Association, saying that I had left the government. So, apart from the NotW and a small column in its sister paper, The Sunday Times, the first that the country knew of my resignation was the hard fact on all the Sunday news bulletins. This was the signal for the ratpack to descend in force on my empty constituency home, where they camped for 24 hours until it was obvious to all that I was in hiding.
Was I a coward for caving in without even trying to fight? There is no right or wrong way to handle a scandal - but you do need a confidant with a clear head, such as I had in Davis. Mr Blunkett desperately needs such a figure. Unlike the Home Secretary, I was a minor functionary and utterly dispensable. I decided that getting out quick with the minimum of publicity was the safest and, in the long run, most comfortable option. Remember that, at the time, the press was in full cry against a weak and incompetent government, so it just couldn't afford any further scandal - although there were several more to follow. I also knew that I would be distracted and thus unable to carry out my formal duties. If I remained in office, I would be living in fear of subsequent Sunday papers.
To be honest, I didn't feel that my world had ended, and I wasn't traumatised. In fact, I was more relieved than I expected. Since then, only the thought of the ratpack outside my home has ever filled me with dread.
Nothing has changed here for subsequent victims, and David Blunkett will probably also find that this same ratpack pressure will intensify. In the end, if he goes, it will be as much because of this daily media harassment, that will surely get to him (and to Downing Street) as the rights and wrongs of his battles with Mrs Quinn.Reuse content