A masterpiece of bungling

During election time any story connected with politics is even bigger and it is our misfortune in Scotland that its two recent stories could not have come at a worse time. Allan Stewart MP has been MP for Eastwood for a decade and a half. A former government minister on two occasions, he is respected within his constituency and throughout Scotland by Conservatives and opponents alike. A pleasant personality hides an extremely sharp brain - a First in economics at St Andrews University, no less.

Stewart fell foul of the drink problem - a fact that was known to many within the constituency - and those who knew rallied round to help. One would expect nothing less. He was given "secret" treatment at a clinic - in Scotland. But there is nothing secret in Scotland. A Sunday Scottish newspaper, while expressing sympathy in its editorial, was not sympathetic to any claims or suggestions of privacy. The world and his wife in Scotland were told.

While the publicity was unsettling there were no demands or even suggestions that he should resign his seat - indeed why on Earth should there be? And then it turned out that a relatively elderly woman whom he had met at the clinic was staying at his house. And why not? There was no suggestion of an improper relationship and I am quite sure that with alcoholics who are undergoing treatment a problem shared leads to a problem solved.

But whether or not the relationship was deemed to be improper was neither here nor there. The publicity was, as one now comes to expect, considerable and Stewart decided, rightly or wrongly, not to put himself forward for election.

Personally, I would rather he had left that matter to his constituency to decide. I am sure that, given the fact that he was an outstandingly good and respected MP, he would have been comfortably re-elected. His resignation, however, led to the second even more harrowing tragedy.

Sir Michael Hirst was a Member of Parliament for Bearsden until 1987. Unlike many of his Scottish compatriots who lost seats he did not turn his attentions to the quieter, greener and more conservative pastures of southern England but stayed on in a vain effort to re-establish Bearsden as a Conservative seat. He was an extraordinarily good chairman of the Scottish party. No invitation was ever refused, no constituency unvisited and no audience too small. What I had always assumed to be a non-executive job became an executive one for him.

Rumours had circulated for a number of years about an indiscretion after his personal assistant was "exposed" in the finest traditions of the British press by The News of the World in respect of other alleged homosexual activities not involving Mickey Hirst. Nothing but nothing was ever published because there was nothing but nothing to publish.The tragedy assumed Romeo and Juliet proportions when Allan Stewart resigned and the safest seat in Scotland became free. Some Conservatives who knew of the rumour were worried that if Hirst was adopted as a candidate for Eastwood the rumours of the past would surface. Others harbouring grudges campaigned against Hirst using such rumour and innuendo as had always been available.

One person in possession of the detail of the allegations told them to the party apparatchik in Scotland. It seems clear that some had not heard of the old rumours, which had been dismissed by most of us as fanciful, baseless and indeed irrelevant.

In any event a stage-two process unfolded. First of all Hirst saw the folly of taking a risk by going for Eastwood where he would, in my opinion, have been an excellent candidate and an outstanding MP. On the following day he was further confronted. A press phone call had been put into Central Office asking about the allegations, thereby suggesting that the press knew of them. Perhaps the person who had told the officers of the allegations had convinced himself (or herself) that the allegations were proven. Perhaps they were worried that they could be proven.

The real tragedy of this unhappy saga is that on current evidence Hirst need not have resigned since there was nothing more to the story but tittle- tattle. In resigning, however, he admitted a past "indiscretion", giving substance to the rumour.

Now how did all this come about? I believe that the person who originally gave the statement to the party apparatchik was doing so "for the good of the party". This stopped Hirst standing for Eastwood. Yet some would argue that if Hirst was open to a dramatic exposure then the story would be just as newsworthy against him as chairman of the party whether or not he was a candidate. There were others undoubtedly who did not want him to be a candidate, and they will no doubt have to answer to themselves in periods of reflection.

There is of course a third theory:that the whole matter was a conspiracy to stop Hirst at Eastwood launching a new political career for many, many years from that base. I reject that theory, however seductive it may sound. The suddenness of the timing makes it all rather complicated.

Conspiracy, care for the party or malice, it matters not - Hirst withdrew from Eastwood. However we have, in subsequent events, a masterpiece of cock-up. It was in no one's interest that Hirst should resign in disgrace as chairman unless we harbour Conservatives who wish us to lose the election as heavily as possible and wipe Scottish Conservatism off the map.

The really ugly lesson for me is that after the events, some of those involved are still peddling stories of malice, intrigue and division within the party. For once I don't blame the press. It's no crime to listen.

How will this affect the Conservative Party in Scotland? As of yesterday The Scotsman showed that the Conservatives were to climb. The Glasgow Herald said the reverse. Personally, I do not believe that any of this nonsense will have an effect on the electorate. The issue is not whether the chairman of the party had an indiscretion many years ago or whether Allan Stewart was wise in housing a woman in his house. Fortunately the electorate will address other issues and I, for one, avoiding the tartan tax in London, will resolutely vote Conservative.

Professor Harper is a former president of the Scottish Tories and has recently retired as president of the International Bar Association

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