The revenge of the Moral Majority: The Yeo Affair: Traditional values saved John Major's career at last year's party conference. Now he is paying the price.
Sunday 09 January 1994
In potted biographies in Who's Who and Dod's Parliamentary Companion, Tory MPs appear one after another as pillars of traditional domestic respectability. Nearly all are married to their first wife or husband, nearly all have children (from the said wife or husband) and no one mentions a homosexual partner or a lover on the side. Whereas in the confused world outside, one-third of marriages end in divorce and one-third of children are born to unmarried parents, only 38 out of 334 Conservative MPs are listed as divorced, three as separated and 21 as single. In all, 272 of them, or 81.4 per cent, are shown to conform to the British family ideal.
This picture must be all but incomprehensible to newspaper readers, who have become accustomed to a gaudy pageant of Tory sex. Since the last election, they have read of David Mellor's affair with Antonia de Sancha, of the relationships between Steven Norris (the energetic junior transport minister) and his five mistresses, of Tim Yeo's two illegitimate children from different women and of Alan Clark's colourful past, which prompted the Cabinet Secretary to warn him of the danger of blackmail. Last night they heard allegations that a Tory MP had left his wife because of his friendship with a man.
In sex, as in everything else, the turns of fortune's wheel are capricious. Yeo, Mellor, Cecil Parkinson, Lord Lambton (a junior minister involved in a call- girl scandal in Edward Heath's government) and John Profumo (Harold Macmillan's war minister) had to resign.
But Norris survived. So too did Nigel Lawson when, as an MP, he had a child out of wedlock before he divorced his first wife and married the mother. Tony Marlow, the Conservative MP for Northampton North, never denied a report in the News of the World, which has been repeated many times, that he was a 'superdad' who had a 'second family', but his constituency allowed him to remain an exuberant and independent- minded backbencher. Friends of Emma Nicholson say that her attempts to become a Conservative candidate were frustrated because she was named in the divorce case of Sir Michael Caine, the chairman of Booker plc. But she became the Conservative MP for Torridge and West Devon nevertheless.
Formally, Conservative MPs are devoted and monogamous. In practice, they are probably at least as sexually active as the rest of the population. 'As most of them live away from their families they have ample opportunities for conducting a secret affair,' says Andrew Roth, who, as editor of the authoritative Parliamentary Profiles, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of MPs' backgrounds. 'At a rough guess I would say just one or two in 10 of the affairs that go on in Westminster ever get written up in the newspapers.' Unlike the rest of us, Roth points out, MPs of all parties are under strong political pressures to keep dead marriages alive.
Some go to great lengths to keep up appearances. 'One of the most notorious tail-chasers in Westminster has many Catholic constituents,' said Roth. 'He is listed as being 'separated' from his wife when to all intents and purposes he is divorced. If he was in any other business he would have divorced long ago.'
Last week Roth was preparing his entry on a Conservative MP, whose wife is said to have borne the child of a fellow Tory MP, for the next edition of Profiles. Like all entries, it will be sent to the MP for his comments before publication. Roth knows that the MP will demand that the reference to the baby is struck out and will threaten to sue if it is not. In the end, no mention of the embarrassing incident will appear.
AND WHY should it? Many civilised people would regard all these affairs as private matters of no political consequence. Wellington, Lloyd George, Macmillan . . . what politician, not to mention journalist or newspaper reader, could emerge untarnished if the News of the World turned over his or her life?
But the Government's critics point out that to adopt this view in the Britain of 1994, you have to be able to forget this:
John Redwood, the Welsh Secretary, told a Conservative audience in Cardiff last July that one of 'the biggest social problems of our day is the surge in single-parent families' and urged them to support the Government's attempts to ensure fathers made a financial contribution or 'even a fuller contribution by offering the normal love and support that fathers have offered down the ages to their families'.
Sir George Young, the housing minister, said at the Conservative Party Conference last October that council housing laws that put the needs of single parents before those of married couples would have to be changed. 'How do we explain to the young couple . . . who want to wait for a home before they start a family . . . that they cannot be rehoused ahead of the unmarried teenager expecting her first, probably unplanned, child?' he asked.
John Patten, the Education Secretary, speaking at the same conference, attacked parents who failed to provide their children with a caring and disciplined home and left teachers to pick up the pieces. 'The greatest threat we face in this country of a return to the 'two nations' that Disraeli once warned of is no longer the division between rich and poor but rather between those who have a stable, caring childhood and those who do not.'
Peter Lilley, the Social Security Secretary, attacked what he alleged was the belief of sixties types that the traditional family was 'politically incorrect' and 'sneered into silence' those who contradicted them. 'Earlier this year I decided that it was time to break that taboo,' he continued, 'to reaffirm that ideally children need two loving parents; that parents' first duty is to their children; and that that duty is for life.'
The attacks on the weak and feckless at the Conservative Party Conference and John Major's decision to emphasise personal responsibility in his own 'back to basics' address appeared a masterstroke. The previous 12 months had seen the exit from the exchange rate mechanism, a seemingly unending recession, the Matrix-Churchill scandal and the pit crisis. Major's own future had come into question.
But at the conference the Prime Minister confounded his enemies. Following his right- wing colleagues, he played the trump Tory values card that more cautious Conservative leaders have hesitated to use. The conference faithful, always right wing, always responsive to emotional moral majority appeals, loved and believed him. Major's most difficult conference as leader ended closer to a triumph than a wake.
South Suffolk Conservative Association sent eight delegates to Blackpool, and most of the remaining 2,000 members watched the show on television. There was near-universal satisfaction that - at last] - the allegedly dithering John Major and his colleagues had decided to cast off their wimpish image.
''I thought back to basics was a jolly good idea,' said Tina Baker, secretary of the constituency's Great Cornard branch. 'It was excellent that people were trying to get moral standards raised.'
Tim Yeo is 48, and has two children from his marriage. He is generally seen as being on the left of the party. Although he once told Relate that 'it is in everyone's interest to reduce broken families and the number of single parents' (a remark thrown in his face many times in the past fortnight) the former environment minister is no moral crusader. One of his few noteworthy parliamentary interventions was to call in 1984 for an end to discrimination against illegitimate children.
HE WAS introduced to Julia Stent, 34, a solicitor and Tory councillor in the London borough of Hackney, at a 1991 Guy Fawkes Night party by Andrew Turner, Hackney's Conservative candidate in the European Parliament elections. The affair blossomed at the 1992 Tory conference and early last year Yeo confessed to his wife Diane that Stent was pregnant.
It was the third family disaster Mrs Yeo has had to cope with (her husband's first illegitimate child came before the marriage). Their daughter Emily was partially paralysed by a brain haemorrhage when she was 15 and their son Jonathan was diagnosed as suffering from lymph cancer when he was 18.
On 8 July, as the Conservative leadership was preparing its 'back to basics' offensive, Stent gave birth to a girl, who was named Claudia-Marie. This sort of information unfailingly finds its way to government whips. Exactly when they knew is unclear, but Westminster opinion is adamant that the news reached them (and therefore Downing Street) some months before the story broke in the press on Christmas Sunday. Major, then, had ample warning that a minister in his own government was responsible for creating another single- parent family. Perhaps he did not expect the Press onslaught, perhaps he failed to realise how hypocritical it would seem to attack poor single mothers and benefit claimants for irresponsibility while letting a prosperous minister off the hook. For whatever reason, nothing was done. He and Yeo gambled.
Three weeks before Christmas and five weeks before the minister's reluctant departure from office, the News of the World asked Diane Yeo about her husband's adultery. She refused to talk, and the country's most famous libel lawyer, Peter Carter-Ruck, was called in.
In the week begining 13 December, News of the World reporters approached Downing Street for a comment, but Major had none. On Christmas Eve, when it had become clear that the paper was not going to be scared away, Yeo authorised a statement, published two days later, accepting responsibility for the child.
Between Christmas and the new year, while the Yeos took a holiday in the Seychelles, most Tories defended the minister. Downing Street said the affair was 'a purely private matter'. Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, said: 'It would be a great mistake if we went down the course of trying to pillory people for their own private lives.' An exception was David Evans, a brash right-winger, who said Yeo had let down John Major and 'the party of family values'. But Evans revealed the moral confusion in the parliamentary party by adding: 'If you do it and don't get caught, fair enough. If you get caught, goodbye.'
IN SOUTH Suffolk there was no moral confusion. Yeo had told a few senior officers about his daughter in the week before Christmas - but only when he was sure the story was going to be published. Most local Conservatives knew nothing about the affair until they read about it in the newspapers. Even before they heard about the second illegitimate daughter, they were horrified.
'We took soundings,' said one local party officer, 'and I don't think a single Conservative supported him. We're old- fashioned here. People in public service have to set an example.' Aldine Horrigan, the mayor of Haverhill and a leading local Tory who had backed Yeo for the seat in 1983, wrote to John Major demanding that he sack the minister.
At Great Cornard, party members were asked about Yeo. Would they go out canvassing for him? No. Would they now select him as a candidate if he was putting himself forward for the first time and others were available? No. Would they select him to fight the seat at the next election? No. Should he immediately resign from the Government? Yes. Should he resign immediately as an MP as well? No.
The last answer smelt of hypocrisy, for all the local party's worthiness. Activists admitted that the real reason they did not want Yeo to resign his seat was because they did not want to fight a by-election they were almost certain to lose.
'We all felt very sorry for his wife and for the child who will have to live with this stigma,' said Tina Baker. 'But he's betrayed us. He fathered a child and then stayed with his wife. He was trying to have his cake and eat it and we were not going to put up with it.'
On New Year's Day Major gave an interview on BBC radio, but refused to be drawn on the scandal. Downing Street took no line, and neither did John Gummer, Yeo's boss at the Department of the Environment. Meanwhile, the chairman of the Conservative Family Institute argued in a letter to the Times that 'immoral politicians' could not be trusted.
Yeo was finally judged and condemned, not by the tabloids, nor by his colleagues in Parliament, nor by the Prime Minister who is meant to decide who serves as a minister, but by three pensioners, two farmers, two housewives and a businessman - the officers of the South Suffolk constituency association. When he came to face them last Tuesday night, he miscalculated. 'He wasn't dejected; there was a degree of arrogance,' said one officer, 'and I don't think that helped. There was an apology, of course, but he said he had every intention of carrying on as a minister.'
The officers thought otherwise. In a terse statement, they said that they were 'deeply concerned at the widespread disappointment and criticism being expressed by party members'. That was enough to force him to offer his resignation. The Prime Minister accepted it and in the process allowed a rural constituency to determine his ministerial team.
Last night, abandoned by his Prime Minister and constituency workers, Tim Yeo talked about the illegitimate child he had fathered as a student in Cambridge in the much-maligned sixties. There was a hint of recklessness in his revelation. Although he said he was sure he would be reselected as the Conservative candidate, he could yet do the one thing all the colleagues who failed to stand by him would fear: resign from the Commons and force a by-election.
Additional reporting by Nick Ryan.
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