Leading Article: A solitary but damaging death

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The Independent Online
SIR NORMAN FOWLER was probably being over-optimistic when he said yesterday of the MP Stephen Milligan's death: 'I think the public will take the view that this kind of tragedy could have taken place in any party, in any organisation, and will view it in that light.' But he made a valid point. It should be no reflection on John Major or his party that a Tory MP died in the manner that Mr Milligan appears to have died. There are doubtless a number of people in other walks of public life who indulge in similar practices.

Everyone, however eminent or successful, is entitled to their private fantasies and to whatever means they choose to fulfil them. It is tragic that in Mr Milligan's case something went fatally wrong. As a consequence, the House of Commons has been deprived of an unusually able, knowledgeable and articulate MP who could well have become a cabinet minister.

That none of his colleagues had any inkling of his sexual preferences only emphasises their seemingly self-contained nature. Unless evidence to the contrary is forthcoming, what Mr Milligan did in the privacy of his own home affected no one else and in no way threatened his performance as an MP.

Unfortunately, that is not the main way in which this tragedy is likely to be viewed. To the public, it is bound to look like the latest and saddest of a series of mishaps that have stricken the Conservative Party in the past year. It may also seem to confirm that Mr Major fatally lacks the invaluable attribute of good luck. Whenever he and his party seem to be climbing out of the various political holes into which they have fallen, along comes a setback to collective morale in the form of some deviation from the straight and narrow.

The run of such misfortunes began with the David Mellor affair, gathered pace with that of Tim Yeo, acquired tragic overtones with the suicide of Lady Caithness, sank to the level of petty vindictiveness with Norman Lamont's reported denigration of the Prime Minister, and scraped the barrel of mindless xenophobia with Michael Portillo's remarks about foreign students and businessmen.

And now this, just as Mr Major seemed to be belatedly asserting his authority over the party's dissident right-wingers. When sex and politics meet publicly, there will always be a high level of public interest. This reflects credit neither on the public nor on the media that feed the appetite. But it is a fact of life. In this instance there is also a genuinely political dimension, in that Mr Milligan's death will trigger a by-election in a Hampshire constituency that looks vulnerable to the Liberal Democrats.

If defeat there coincides with a poor Tory performance in the May local elections and those in June for the European parliament, Conservative morale will receive a setback that could prove fatal to Mr Major's leadership. In all three campaigns the Conservatives' moralising 'back to basics' campaign is likely to prove as damaging as its divisions over European integration.