Could you resign a bit more discreetly?

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IT IS Sir Norman Fowler I feel sorry for in all of this. When he ran the DHSS, there was a celebrated incident when, reading the proofs of an early anti-Aids advertisement, the Secretary of State asked: 'What is oral sex?'

So Sir Norman's mouth must really have been wide open in Hammersmith police station last Monday night as the circumstances of Stephen Milligan's death were explained to him. 'Okay,' we imagine him saying, 'the orange segment I understand. Can you do the bit about the bin-liner again?'

Then, on Saturday night, the telephone rings unexpectedly again. The conversation goes something like this:

'Chairman, Hartley Booth is resigning as PPS.'

'Oh Lord, what is it this time?'

'His research assistant, sir. Thankfully, it went no further than poetry.'

Sir Norman's head is spinning. Introduced through his political career to the sheer variety of human sexual activity, he imagines 'poetry' to be a practice involving a pineapple and a pillowcase. Gradually, he realises that there is no euphemism involved. The member for Finchley, Hartley Booth, has ceased to be a parliamentary private secretary because of a relationship with a female assistant which, though agreed by both parties to be non-sexual, extended to his writing love poems to her.

And so, in just one week, the moral scandals of the Conservative Party have moved from tragedy to comedy, although paradoxically, the implications of the latter may be greater than those of the former. While Stephen Milligan's lonely and sordid death undoubtedly added to the air of sleaze and deceit surrounding the Government, the exact circumstances of the incident are unlikely to occur again. Mr Booth's little scandal, though, is all too repeatable, and with knobs on, and therefore has more serious consequences of precedent and resonance.

What the member for Finchley has done is to introduce the Jimmy Carter Standard to Conservative politics. Mr Carter, while running for president of the United States, felt it necessary to confess to Playboy magazine that he had 'committed adultery many times in my heart'. Most people would feel that, in these areas, the sin is in commission, not ambition; but Mr Carter, as a Baptist lay preacher, considered even contemplation to be wrong. Mr Booth, as a Methodist lay preacher, apparently feels the same, and has upped the purity stakes by resigning over his naughty thoughts, as Mr Carter did not.

Thus, in what he claims was an attempt to help the Prime Minister, Mr Booth has established platonic sexual attraction as a resignation issue for his party and, more important, the press. This may not turn out to the fillip for Mr Major that Mr Booth intended.

The Finchley member would say that he resigned not just because of unusually firm personal standards, but in obedience to John Major's warning - as part of his recent 'get tough' makeover - that erring Conservatives should in future get out quickly. This is what the MP means when he says that he 'resigned in order to spare the Government embarrassment'. The problem is that, rather like the completely successful operation in which the patient died, the avoidance of embarrassment and the infliction of it are, to outside observers, largely indistinguishable. The symptoms, in both cases, are hysterical front-page headlines and an increase in the sense of doom and ruin around the Government.

In this way, Mr Major, after seeing what fortune did with the first hostage he offered her (the 'back to basics' slogan), seems to have cheerfully sent her a second one, in the shape of the 'get tough' campaign. Columnists who demonstrate that Major's conference speech on 'back to basics' never specifically mentioned personal morality are being far too kind to him. The success of a slogan is judged not by intent but by interpretation. The writers of the disastrous cigarette sales line 'You're never alone with a Strand' never meant the smoke to become associated with the lonely, but when it did, they quickly took it off the market. Whatever Mr Major hoped to communicate with his back-to-basics formula, it was interpreted as moral fundamentalism.

Some suggest that the media were responsible for this, cynically spotting the 'public interest' defence they need, under recent guidelines, for printing sleaze about public figures. But, in fact, it was the Conservatives who first jumped to what we are now told was the wrong conclusion. The South Suffolk Tories did so by demanding Tim Yeo should go. Backbench MPs - including, as it happens, one Stephen Milligan on Newsnight two weeks before he died - confirmed that 'personal morality' was involved. This is what Middle England wanted to hear and is what it believed the Prime Minister to have said.

In this climate, the 'get tough' line devised by the Prime Minister's advisers was not the intended distraction from 'back to basics', but an exacerbation. Asking his colleagues to resign with less fuss in future is a bit like asking your victims to scream less loudly when you shoot them. An alternative would have been to put the gun away. Yet even now Mr Major seems determined to go on firing the dangerous original line, with its lethal second barrel of 'get tough'.

There was a strong scene in the Eighties television series A Very British Coup, in which the prime minister, after a ministerial sex scandal, asked his whip: 'What else is there I need to know?' You might have assumed that John Major would have made a similar inquiry around the time of the Yeo affair but he is either too trusting or his whips aren't nosey enough.

There is a legitimate complaint - or, anyway, observation - about the behaviour of the media during recent cases. But this has nothing to do with the usual shouts about invasion and invention. It is that there has existed an unprecedented consensus news agenda between the tabloids and the broadsheets, between the newspapers and the television news.

The almost universal top-spot coverage given to Stephen Milligan's death was justifiable, because of the early possibility of murder. But Hartley Booth, a nobody resigning over nothing, jostled with Bosnia for main headlines in every media outlet. The Labour backbencher James Boyce died recently while waiting for a heart transplant. But the death of this MP was scarcely reported at all, although, objectively, he was no more or less famous than Mr Booth. What has happened is that - even at the austere and often politically cowardly BBC - each successive resignation is seen as symbolic of a rocked and rotten government.

It may be cathartic for Mr Major and Sir Norman Fowler to blame the press for what has happened to them. But consider the losses. Stephen Milligan was the victim of a slip of fate - or foot - but the rest - Yeo, Caithness, Duncan and Booth - are victims of two disastrous catch-phrases. Booth, the first victim of 'get tough', has, in resigning over writing a poem, virtually guaranteed more scandals. It was Sir Norman Fowler's birthday 10 days ago. I do do hope someone bought him a copy of Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis.