Matthew Norman: What's worse: to cover up drink or a war?

Some scandal: a man without a prayer of sitting in government was incapacitated by a hangover
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It isn't the original political misdeed that does the damage... it's the cover up! So there it is, Number 19 (b) according to my worryingly well-thumbed Lexicon of Journalistic Cliché, a phrase trotted out so often and so automatically when our political class is judged to have misbehaved itself that it's best imagined in the nasal timbre of that laureate of the catchphrase Bruce Forsyth.

Although it would come as small surprise to find the equivalent phrase in Tacitus or Herodotus, scholars of hackneyed political writing would doubtless source it to Watergate, and in the intervening decades it must have been used a billion times. I've used it myself with cloying frequency in the past, and such is the impact on the short-term memory of too much Scotch the night before that I might very well use it again in this piece without an iota of ironic self-awareness. And so, with the scent of Glenlivet still in the nostril, to the freshly distilled catalyst for this week's outpouring of Number 19 (b)... the new biography of Charles Kennedy unveiling the fact that his Liberal Democrat colleagues knew for years that their leader was a drunk and opted to keep schtum.

In terms of astounding disclosures, it's hard to imagine the like. If someone were to break the news that Roy Keane has a bit of a temper, or Warren Beatty has a useful back catalogue of sexual conquests, or that under the new weight guidelines the late Mama Cass would have struggled to persuade an NHS fertility specialist she deserved a crack at IVF, these revelations would shock us profoundly. Yet they'd cause barely a fraction of the astonishment occasioned by the news that Ming Campbell and the gang were aware of Chat Show's problem as far back as 1999.

So then, to recap, it isn't the scandal that Charlie was an alcoholic that shakes our faith in the party of family man Mark Oaten and the Tatchell tormentor Simon Hughes. It is... good game, my loves, good game... the cover up!

Some cover up, you may think, when this was a secret so open that for many years you could hardly tune in to a smart arse comedy on Radio 4 without some never-quite-will-be wheeling out the Charlie's-a-dipso gag to collect the ritual laugh, in much the way Arthur Askey once milked audiences by so drolly mispronouncing a common expression of gratitude as "thang yow". Long before Jeremy Paxman put the question to Mr Kennedy straight, in other words, everybody knew.

And some scandal, you might think, that a man without a prayer of ever sitting in a government, let alone of forming one, was sometimes incapacitated by a hangover. Churchill, as we're incessantly reminded, saved humanity from Nazi tyranny on a daily vat of cognac, while confidantes of the mid-1980s Mrs Thatcher describe the old girl putting away twice her body weight in whisky each evening.

They may have been voted the two outstanding PMs of the 20th century this week, but no matter. On the Kennedy principle, the court of history must now indict Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee, Lord Beaverbrook, Douglas Hurd and John Major - and yes, why should he be exonerated? Put Norman Fowler in the dock as well - on the charge of covering up their respective boss's fondness for high-proof spirits.

Charlie Kennedy, in truth, was clearly in a rather different league as a politician as well as a drinker. For all the perplexing vogue for painting him as a genius who sold his immense political talent for a mess of potcheen, he was never more than a bright, well-meaning, unpompous, bone-idle bundle of ginger affability, and therein lay every ounce of his electoral appeal. He never made a memorable speech or had an original thought, but he was a chap with whom you could, to use another overworked cliché, see yourself having a drink; and for whom you could happily vote knowing that never would one of those stubby fingers hover tremulously over the nuclear button.

In an age of almost uniformly robotic or emetic senior politicians (or, in Hazel Blear's case, both), humour and human-ness make an intoxicating electoral cocktail, which is why a Labour Party seriously determined to win the next election would do the dirty on Gordon Brown and plump for Alan Johnson instead. In this context, the failure of Mr Kennedy's friends and workmates to disclose the boozing seems more an expression of loyalty and affection, served with a chaser of mild self-interest, that which always does far more damage than the original offence.

Those seeking a genuine cover-up might examine the behaviour of those ministers who sat quietly by watching a man almost as widely thought to be raving mad as Charlie was known to be raving drunk leading Britain into a war diametrically opposed to simple morality and the national interest. Only one member of the Cabinet emerged from the invasion of Iraq with honour, and the solitary time I met Robin Cook, a few weeks before his death, he wryly expressed his interest in a recent article on this page examining academic papers on the nature of sociopathy in relation to the Prime Minister's mental state.

Had even four or five of Mr Cook's colleagues shown the same backbone, and resigned with him before the military action was launched, it is very possible that Mr Blair would have been compelled to abort the lunacy. Instead, preferring the extra income, the ministerial Rover and the flimsy façade of political power, these people gave their craven imprimatur to action that has led directly to the loss of many British lives both here and Iraq, and will cost countless more in the future.

The cover-up goes on and on, of course, with Home Secretary "Dr" John Reid recently reiterating the imbecilic, intelligence-insulting denial that British involvement in Iraq is a primary cause of homegrown Islamic terrorism. Those who think alcoholism among the gravest of sins for a public figure might consider whether sometimes the lack of it isn't worse. Does anyone regard "Dr" Reid's subsequent rise to his great office of state as a preferable outcome for the nation to his remaining an alcoholic? The same goes for Alastair Campbell. The same, to the power of infinity, goes for a certain George W Bush.

Fans of the "what-if?" school of history could amuse themselves for months speculating as to how much safer and more pleasant the world in general and this country in particular would be today had the above only had the decency to stay drunk. That would surely be more fun than luxuriating in a synthesised sense of betrayal over a few well-intentioned, if amateurish, Lib Dems failing to tell us something about a man with no power, and no chance of ever acquiring it, which every one of us knew full well all along.