Mark Oaten: On the scandal that ruined him
Three years ago, Mark Oaten was a rising star of Liberal Democrat politics. Then the allegations about a male escort hit the news-stands . . .
Tuesday 15 September 2009
The day started as a bright sunny morning, but as I opened the bedroom curtains I thought it was odd to see two cars in the village hall car park, opposite our house. Something inside me sensed that this was trouble. I dressed quickly and marched outside to find out what was up. One of the drivers tried to hide a camera and at that moment I knew something was badly wrong. The other driver, dressed in a suit and tie, stepped out of his car and, showing me his business card, said: "I think you know why we're here."
In fact I had no idea. I guessed it was something to do with the leadership campaign, or more stories about Charles Kennedy and his drinking. The suited man said: "We have an allegation about a male escort," and produced a photo of someone. I immediately recognised his face even though I had not seen him for over a year. Until then it simply hadn't occurred to me that this would ever come back to haunt me.
I said very little and told them I would be going inside to talk to my family. As I walked back from the village hall to face Belinda I felt quite calm, even though my life was about to explode. As the children were starting to have breakfast I took her into our utility room and as calmly as I could, told her what I'd done. I hugged her and said I was so sorry. I stepped back, not really knowing what to expect. My heart was pounding and my mind racing – everything in my whole world was dependent on what Belinda would do next. Our two daughters sat next door unaware of how their dad had just smashed up their home life. One moment expecting all the innocence of eggy bread, the next about to see their mother torn to shreds and for what, some thrill-seeking experimentation?
Belinda was clearly shocked but initially very calm, even showing pity towards me. I guess our immediate instincts as parents kicked in and we both did everything we could to act normally in front of the girls. Belinda phoned trusted friends who immediately rushed round and began to discuss the practical arrangements for getting Alice and Milly into a safe place and then deciding what to do with the two of us.
In the hours that followed there were tears, shouting, friends arriving and a growing number of journalists turning up in the village hall car park. The Liberal Democrats' chief executive, Chris Rennard, began to take control of the practical side of things. I knew I would have to say something publicly, and I immediately wanted to resign as home affairs spokesman for the party. We drafted a statement which would be issued later in the day, and then Chris offered Belinda support with any travel arrangements she needed to try and escape. At no point did I consider facing the cameras there and then. In many ways I wish I had just walked out and faced the music, resigned and apologised. Fleeing and going to ground for days only increased the press hunt for me and kept the story running longer. But I was in turmoil and in no fit state to make decisions.
It was decided I would head to Cornwall, and a friend agreed to drive for the four-and-a-half-hour journey. Friends packed a rucksack for me and I legged it down to the back of the garden, struggled to climb over the fence and dashed for the boot of the waiting car. I know that other public figures caught in scandal, like Jonathan Aitken, have talked of feeling suicidal. I never felt that, but sickness and depression were starting to kick in and I knew I would need help. I had been taking antidepressants while feeling stressed and unhappy during my time as home affairs spokesman, and now I managed to track down my counsellor, who agreed to fax a prescription through to the small fishing village where we were heading.
As the car sped me to the relative safety of Padstow, I realised I had about six hours before this story would become public. By the time I arrived in north Cornwall it was dark and we just had time to collect my sleeping pills from the chemist and then head to Rick Stein's for fish and chips. I could hardly eat a thing, and as my phone sprang to life it became clear that the news of my resignation must be breaking on TV. I actually had no idea how my nightmare was being broadcast. To this day I still don't, and frankly I am glad I never saw those images.
Sunday was a long day. Although I woke at 7am, I felt groggy from the sleeping tablets and unable to eat breakfast for fear of what the public was reading in the News of the World. Two days later, word came through that Belinda might be prepared to see me. She had headed to Austria with the children and three close friends who'd dropped everything at a moment's notice to be with her.
If I was to fly out to see Belinda, I could not go alone. On Monday my mother and I drove to Heathrow. We managed to make it to the gate without any drama other than fellow passengers glancing across trying to figure out where they'd seen my face. The answer was on every national newspaper that day. The Daily Telegraph covered the whole front page with a photo and the headline "How could he?" – and to my horror this was the complimentary paper on the plane. Everybody around me was staring at my photo and reading the story. In the row of seats on my left I overheard two passengers: "My God, he was married and had two children." "It's awful – what a mess that party is in." I wanted to get off the plane, run, move, do anything other than be strapped in for two hours with more and more eyes glancing in my direction. It was unbearable.
I had no idea how Belinda would react when she saw me. It was now four days since I'd bolted over the garden fence. When I found her at the resort hotel, she was calm and cold but allowed me to talk to the children, who were full of skiing adventures and thankfully seemed pleased to see me. The next few days seemed unreal. Away from home and headlines I began to rebuild my relationship with Belinda and the girls. My mother returned to England, and we all agreed it would be safe if I stayed on. We were panicky when a strange car pulled up near us or a camera flash went off, but despite endless attempts, the press just didn't catch on to a remote resort in Austria.
Eventually, however, I knew I had to get back to England and face the music. I'll never forget leaving the hotel; I could hardly drive the car for tears and sobbed all the way to Munich airport.
I was torn between going back into hiding or trying to explain. Yes, I had screwed up and hurt my family, but I felt a need to talk about it. I decided to speak to my local paper first. The Hampshire Chronicle is as non-tabloid as you can get; my scandal was the biggest story they'd had since the Romans left town. About a month later, I agreed to pen 10,000 words for The Sunday Times Review section. I wanted it to be as frank as possible and spoke about how tough I found getting older, a symbol of which was the very public loss of my hair.
This decision to talk was not popular with colleagues. John Barrett, a blunt Scottish MP, came up to me in the Commons all smiles, and said: "Mark, you do realise you're making a fool of yourself and damaging all of us? Why don't you just shut up?" I understand why he said it – and I felt awful about the damage my affair had caused the party and my fellow LibDem MPs – but his comments hurt.
As the weeks went by I started to get out and about. Around Winchester people would come up in the street, give me a hug, smile, offer words of encouragement. Typical was: "You're a bloody idiot – but you're a good MP and that's what counts." It was overwhelming and gave me so much help to find some sense of confidence.
By now Belinda and the girls were home. We wanted to recreate a normal environment for the children, but things were far from normal. I slept in the downstairs bedroom and slowly we rebuilt a family structure. This meant Belinda and I needed time to talk, fight, argue and make up. When she was angry she really went for it on some occasions, lashing out and hitting me. It was alarming and it hurt, but she needed to get it out of her system and I needed to take the blows. Apart from a broken finger, I never came to much harm.
Meanwhile, as the media storm calmed down, I was left with questions from colleagues, family and friends. Just what had I done, and why?
It's hard to even begin to understand what led a happily-married man to do such a thing. Around that time I had been working crazy hours and was on a treadmill of meetings, interviews and speeches. Each day was interesting and different, but they blurred into the same routine of pumping myself up with adrenaline to fight the exhaustion. Jumping from one reception or event to another, I got into the habit of knocking back a few glasses at each. By the end of the evening, a combination of tiredness and alcohol would help me sleep – but it also made me fairly emotional.
It was on such a night that I sought out the number of an escort in the back of a magazine and went to his flat in south London. I know it's hard to believe, but when I was there I did not feel guilt or panic, and the guy made me feel as though this was the most normal thing in the world. He was polite, friendly, businesslike and in total control, giving me no sense that I was exploiting him. He was good-looking and I was envious of his youthfulness. We never had intercourse and I stayed for less than an hour. And then I remember collapsing back at my flat in a state of exhaustion, drunkenness, guilt and confusion.
I had been fascinated by the experience and although I knew it was wrong I wanted to explore more. I carried on seeing him; each time I visited it was late at night and on an evening when I would be staying in London.
Around the beginning of March 2005, the political world was heating up as the general election campaign was about to start. My life became even more frantic, and I was away from London campaigning and jumping in and out of TV studios several times a day. The next time I saw the escort was when the News of the World journalist showed me his picture that awful morning almost a year later. To this day I don't feel angry with him selling his story. This was entirely my fault; no point blaming anybody else.
But the real question about all of this is not what I did but why. I wish there was a simple answer. My sexuality had never been something I ever had reason to question. As a teenager I was as keen as all my mates to get a girlfriend and quickly had a string of relationships. By the time I married Belinda in 1992 I had fallen head over heels in love with her and our relationship was wonderful.
So how did the need to experiment with my sexuality start? In months of counselling after the affair became public I spent hours going through the reasons. I think there are a number of complex factors at work. Seeing this 23-year-old man was obviously an enormous personal risk. I used my own phone to call him and made no attempt to hide the number. I turned up in my work clothes, on one occasion direct from a television studio.
Yet I had no real concept of the risk I was taking. I didn't think for a moment that he would have a clue who I was. I just assumed that he was unlikely to watch Newsnight and that I wasn't a well-known public figure. (If I'd been thinking rationally I would have realised that by 2004 my face was in the national news most weeks.)
It's been suggested to me since that I did really know the risks I was taking and this was a motivation, firstly because the danger of being caught added to the excitement and secondly that I was so fed up with work that I wanted to be caught to bring things to an end. In long conversations with my shrink I've explored both these views. At no time did I consciously think "Wow, how exciting, what a risk," or "Let's hope tomorrow I get caught and have to resign." These thoughts never entered my head so we're dealing with a subconscious motivation that I'm now asked to understand. I simply don't get the link, however hard I try to make one. I was depressed and stressed at work, but there were plenty of other ways to have given that up other than create a scandal. So why then did I take this risk with a man, not a woman? It would be easy to declare that I am gay and have been repressed for years. People like to have tidy explanations and are suspicious of doubt, or unclear answers. If I was at the dispatch box at Westminster my explanation would be shouted down in seconds. But while I now understand that risk and danger did play a small part, the motivation for taking that risk with a man comes from deeper sexual doubts, and from issues about both my childhood and the ageing process.
I don't think that many people can be 100 per cent gay or 100 per cent heterosexual. I am certainly not, and at times in their lives some people experiment along the spectrum. A few years ago the word "metrosexual" was coined to describe a more youthful urban male who was happy to cook, buy moisturiser and watch football. Whilst he felt straight in his sexuality, he'd have lots of gay friends and feel easy about the idea of same-sex relationships, perhaps even wishing to experiment with them himself. I am not sure I've described "metrosexual" that well, but I felt that, out of those awful labels we have to be given, it was the one that summed up my own feeling about myself. I am just not the 6ft, rugby-playing, beer-drinking farmer that enjoys lads' weekends and thinks a woman's place is in the kitchen. I am a bit of a drip when it comes to crying and even drizzle when somebody is evicted from The X Factor, much to the amusement of the whole family. I have no problem admitting that I can look at a guy and think he is good looking, although I find women attractive. The idea of a weekend-long stag party fills me with dread and I can struggle to do laddish chat.
Does that mean I am gay? No, but I completely at ease with those that are. I have found chatting to gay work colleagues fun, as they are less hung up on macho stuff and I have been envious of the rather happy-go-lucky approach they seem to have in general. There is something interesting about the world they live in: it feels very free, without responsibility. Perhaps above all – and here lies a big clue in my case – there is a youthfulness about it. It is in total contrast to the life of the fortysomething Hampshire dad, married with two children, who is getting fat and losing his looks. I think I am driven by an attempt to escape middle age and recapture my youth.
I wish I understood why youth is so important to me. We all get old and I know I should just live with it. But I keep wanting to fight against it, and I feel that I was driven to experimenting or trying to recapture my youth. These doubts about sexuality and this search for youthfulness are part of my DNA. But as I have worked out these issues with my counsellor, other issues have emerged, particularly in relation to my childhood.
I should say that I remain very doubtful that any of this explains my actions. I can't remember a great deal about what took place, and I have boxed the whole thing away to such an extent that it was only during post-scandal counselling that the issue came up at all. It was when I was about nine or 10 and involved a two-year period when I was regularly asked to sexually massage a man much older than me. He was unknown to my parents but in a position of trust. It felt totally normal and I certainly never felt abused. Clearly it was wrong, but it happened, and I have not even been that worried about it. I tell this not for sympathy and not to explain or excuse what I did, because I don't get the connection. It is, however, part of me, and I have to listen to the professionals that tell me it must have played its role.
So what was the explanation? Was it a mid-life crisis? Burnout? A breakdown? Sexual doubts? Childhood issues? They sound like excuses, but all play their part. So too must the fact that I had been living in the political fast lane – dealing with terrorism, Charles Kennedy, the daily grind of the political world – and screwing up my work-life balance. Yet in the end the harsh truth was that there was no-one else to blame. Not a male escort, not the News of the World, just me.
I am not the first or last political figure to fall from grace. I remember feeling no great joy at the problems faced by David Mellor and Tim Yeo as they admitted affairs – but these should have acted as warnings to me. Sadly, the brain doesn't work that way. I think there is something about the political world that almost draws politicians into relationship problems. Not long after news of my affair broke, I interviewed the ex-Tory MP Michael Brown, himself the subject of a News of the World exposé, for a film I made for Newsnight. He said risk-taking made him a good politician – but those same risks worked less well in his private life. The modern political animal is a risk-taker; you have to be to stand for public office in the first place. This in part explains why so many MPs end up in trouble, with colourful private lives. There are the obvious candidates: outgoing types such as Alan Clark, Boris Johnson or my mate Lembit Öpik. But who would have thought of John Major, John Prescott or dull old Mark Oaten? Perhaps it is in the DNA of all politicians.
This is an edited extract from 'Screwing Up' by Mark Oaten (£18.99), published by Biteback on 25 September. To pre-order a copy for the special price of £17.09 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
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