First, on Friday, John Major launched, through an article in the Daily Telegraph, a new campaign to promote family values. Under the headline "Trust my Instincts", he trumpeted "the fundamental importance of the family ... Both the family and our nation are central to the security of the individual."
It was back to Back to Basics - can that deathless moment in our political history already be three years past? - and of course the man whose instincts we were being asked to trust was the only begetter of that campaign, too.
Sure enough, on Sunday the house of cards came tumbling down: a trainee tax accountant called Paul Stone revealed in the News of the World the intimate details of an affair that he claimed to have had with Tory MP for Harlow Jerry Hayes over a period of 16 months, for which the newspaper paid him pounds 75,000.
Max Clifford, the famous publicist, who is an ardent Labour supporter and was responsible for bringing Stone and the News of the World together, had struck again. "It's a personal vendetta" against the Tories, Clifford explained yesterday, "based on what they have done to the NHS ... When I heard about Mr Major's latest statement about the Tories being the party of the family, this made it all the more important". Thanks to Clifford and his righteous indignation, the News of the World was able to start the New Year with the sort of splash headline no one does better: "TORY MP 2-TIMED WIFE WITH UNDER-AGE GAY LOVER."
The story, for those only now emerging from their rocks, was as follows: cherubic, curly-haired Jerry Hayes, happily married family man with two, count 'em, children, Lawrence and Francesca and loyal wife Alison who works tirelessly for him in his constituency, has been harbouring a guilty secret. Four years ago he became involved with a gay Young Conservative, Paul Stone.
According to Stone, Hayes picked him up at a meeting of the Stonewall Gay Rights pressure group during the 1991 Tory conference in Blackpool, and that same evening, in the paper's words, "Hayes then committed a lewd act which was in breach of the law at the time" - presumably because Stone was 18, and the age of consent for homosexual acts was 21. (It has since been reduced to 18, with Hayes's active support.)
Thereupon, the story continues, the two became lovers, Hayes bringing Stone down from his home in Peterborough to London regularly, putting him up in a West End club (where Stone says they spent nights together) and putting him to work as his (unpaid) researcher in the House of Commons.
In between meetings, Hayes wrote to his new friend. "I love you," went one letter printed in the News of the World. "I am really trying very hard to forget you but I just can't, I miss your daft voice, your voice, your laughter melting into your eyes..." "I love you with every fibre of my being," gushed another. "Honestly I wish I didn't but I can't help myself..."
Confronted with evidence as unequivocal as this, Hayes told the paper that he and Stone had been close friends - "We had some special and magic moments together" - but denied there had ever been a sexual element.
"It was a lovely relationship, an intimate relationship," he said, "but that's all it ever could be." Declaring that he was in touch with his solicitor, Hayes then whisked wife and kids off to an unknown destination. "The news [of the affair] will come as a body blow to Premier John Major who this week relaunched his moral crusade in time for the election," the paper predicted.
And so it came to pass: most of yesterday's papers decided that Hayes's "gay scandal" was the stuff of front page splashes. The Times reckoned, "Tory election campaign launch marred by claims of gay sex" and reported that senior figures in the Conservative Party were urging Hayes to step down at the next election; on the contrary, declared the Daily Mail, they are urging him to tough it out. The Telegraph, which had so recklessly invoked the Prime Minister's instincts on Friday, wanly echoed The Times - "Tories hit by claims over MP and boy" - but editorially raged, "The allegations ... have no bearing on the Government or its policies."
It must be admitted that there is something in this view. After all, Jerry Hayes is not in the Government; he's not even close. For the Telegraph he is "unimportant ... dragged from the darkest corners of the back benches." One has to ask why Jerry Hayes's gay fling/platonic friendship should be thought to have any bearing on anything besides the emotions of those two people and, arguably, of those close to them.
The News of the World did its best to find something serious about the case which would help to justify running it so big, pointing out in particular that Stone had been under age at the time. The Sun, the News of the World's News International stablemate, added yesterday that, though vice-chairman of the House of Commons's Aids committee, Hayes "never wore a condom" when making love to Stone. But everyone knows that these sort of details are just icing on the cake. Without them the story would be almost as juicy.
But why? What is it in this story that makes editors vote with almost complete unanimity that Hayes and Stone is the biggest story on even a slow, hungover, post-holiday news day?
Part of the reason is to be found in the Government's terminal, fissiparous condition, shorn of its majority, in the final stages of disintegration, postponing from week to week the dreadful event and, as a result, giving the newspapers the perfect cliffhanger.
Hayes and his local difficulty do not affect the mathematics of voting in the Commons; as one senior Tory conceded, removing the whip from Hayes was hardly an option. But he plays his small, pathetic part in the last act.
But the fundamental reason is that the media's duty to feed their consumers' prurient appetites, a task formerly masked under several layers of bluster and pretence, has become naked, unashamed and (for competitive reasons) urgent.
Thirty and more years ago, you needed a whiff of threat to national security or some such - the sharing of a mistress with Russian defence attache or worse - to give the thing a veneer of public interest sufficient to justify publication.
That well ran dry, never having been very plentiful. The next and more reliable gambit was the bourgeois hypocrisy card. This has served tolerably up until recent times. Sad, slightly preposterous figures such as Cecil Parkinson, Tim Yeo and David Mellor, at least part of their political success based on appeals to the priggishness of their constituents, were caught with pants down and trundled their unhappy families across the nation's front pages in vain attempts to make amends.
It was a disgusting spectacle, this token tabloid spasm of self-righteousness, because so transparently phoney, asserting shock and horror while communicating malicious enjoyment, condemning hypocrisy while manifesting it quite as blatantly as the people exposed. It was, however, the way we do things here, however grotesque in the eyes of the people of just about any other country one can think of.
With this affair, however, the treatment of the extramarital affairs of prominent people in British newspapers has reached a new low - or, if you prefer to open 1997 with a burst of positivity, a new level of honesty.
Jerry Hayes is not vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy. Since wresting Harlow from Labour in 1983, he has led a colourful parliamentary career, but as Roth's Parliamentary Profiles puts it, he "has never taken himself seriously, and therefore has not been taken seriously by others". Speaker Betty Boothroyd's remark that "he would look very pretty as a French maid; I wish I had his curls," is about as fulsome as praise of his parliamentary performance gets.
His peculiarity among the young Thatcherite intakes of the early- and mid-Eighties is that he has been consistently dripping wet: opposing capital punishment, fighting dental and eye charges, standing up for Aids patients and championing the lowering of the age of consent for homosexuals. But such bold stands, and even his refusal to bow to Thatcher's dislike in the matter of his beard and yellow ties, would hardly have brought him fame.
But fame of a sort is what he has achieved by turning himself into an all-purpose television clown. When Andrew Neil described him as "a political buffoon" it was a well-chosen compliment: as political buffoons go, Hayes is one of the best, the most available, the most versatile, the most untrammelled by odd notions such as dignity. On programmes such as the James Whale show he allowed himself to be fastened in the stocks and pelted with custard pies, and to be whipped while dressed in fetish garb
Why did he join the Tory party, he was asked once. "For the women," he replied, "it was pure lust." He appeared in a show at a Butlin's adult weekend in Scotland. "All my jokes were clean," he claimed afterwards. "I started by telling them, `I am a Tory MP and I am here to set a high moral tone."
When the heavy metal group Iron Maiden were having trouble getting permission to play in Beirut, Hayes threw his weight behind them (one member was a constituent) and allowed his buffoonery to infest his politics. "I have advised [the Foreign Office] the group is not a bad influence," he said solemnly. "In fact they are very good: I have all their albums."
Hayes, in other words, is a politician of negligible importance who has supported the gay cause for years (without ever declaring himself to be gay), and is about as far from government as a Tory MP can be. His alleged affair is therefore of interest for only two reasons: as tittle-tattle of the TV famous; and as another death rattle in the throat of this administration.
It's a way to yoke John Major's intoning of the sacred word "family" with a photograph of a professional Tory family in gruesome media trouble. It's political rhetoric and argument reduced to monosyllables and sign language. It reveals Max Clifford as the Mephistophelean master of the political agenda.
Marx wrote of history repeating itself, once as tragedy, the second time as farce. Today this is no longer true: when it's family values and back- to-basics that are at issue, it's first time as farce, second time as end-of-the-pier vaudeville.