I went to a fancy-dress party last weekend where each guest was asked to dress as a cartoon character. I didn't exactly enter into the spirit of the event: I found a cat mask for £1 and on a friend's advice said I was Milady, the cat from the 1980s cartoon Dogtanian And The Three Muskehounds (based, of course, on The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas).
The other guests put rather more effort into things but among the Scooby-Doos and the Barney Rubbles there was one who caused us much angst – a white man in a brown outfit and a "blacked up" face. He wasn't blacked up in the traditional sense, he told us, but had instead come as Mr Hankey the Christmas Poo, an apparently legendary character from an episode of the animated series South Park. Lots of middle-class head-scratching ensued as we tried to work out whether blacking up is acceptable if you are not portraying a person. But most concerned of all were the several guests at the party with political ambitions, some of whom are prospective parliamentary candidates for the next general election and who quickly decided that no photographs should be taken of them with the Christmas Poo.
This may seem like an over-reaction, but they were absolutely right that aspiring politicians need to be aware that such pictures could cause them future trouble and that they needed to decide how to handle this. The Poo may have been harmless but what if he had not been a Poo, but had indeed been depicting a person? Or what if a Prince had turned up dressed as a Nazi – should they have refused to be pictured with him then? What if they had made their own error of judgement like the Conservative MP's aide who appeared in photographs last year with her face painted black.
I am not a fan of David Cameron. The truth is I would rub my hands with glee if a photo existed of him snorting coke off the body of a prostitute surrounded by people dressed as Nazis, and it ruined his career. But when he says, as he has before in response to being asked whether he has ever tried hard drugs, that politicians are entitled to a private life "before politics", he is absolutely right.
This is not just because politicians and aspiring politicians are normal people who get invited to normal parties and cannot be held responsible for the behaviour of other people at them, whether it is dressing as a poo or taking drugs, but also because if we want people go into politics later in life after having experience in the "real world", rather than career politicians who go straight from MP's researcher to policy job to political adviser to MP, then we have to accept that they probably haven't gone through life wondering how the media will use their past against them if they do eventually become a public figure.
Of course, even Barack Obama has a past. He used cocaine and marijuana while at school and was a heavy drinker. This hasn't stopped him reaching the very top of the US political tree, and his honesty about this has been applauded. In fact, it is not the behaviour that seems to be the problem when it comes to politicians' pasts, but how well they handle it once the information has come to light.
Perhaps the aspiring politicians should have thought of this and allowed their picture to be taken with Mr Hankey. How they handle the fallout in future when (excuse the pun) the shit hits the fan, could be the making of them.