Leading Article: Corruption is worse than cuddling

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The Independent Online
THIS IS becoming ridiculous. Who cares that Hartley Booth, Tory MP for Finchley, has kissed and cuddled (his words) an attractive research assistant? It is, as one cabinet minister, Peter Lilley, commented yesterday, a matter for Mr Booth and his wife. The MP, who for good measure is a Methodist lay preacher, says he did not have sexual relations with the 22-year-old researcher 'for various reasons', a curious formulation unlikely to quell gossip.

Evidently Mr Booth feels that he made a fool of himself. Yet that scarcely seems sufficient grounds for resigning his minuscule role as parliamentary private secretary to Douglas Hogg at the Foreign Office. This is the 'back to basics' backlash reduced to the absurd.

As party strategists should have foreseen, the slogan devised last autumn to unite a divided party at the annual conference has provided the press with a perfect justification for peddling virtually any news discreditable to the Tories. The emphasis on 'family values' at the same conference was not much less of a hostage to fortune.

One of the shrillest voices at that time was that of Mr Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security. Yesterday he told David Frost on BBC 1's Breakfast With Frost programme that infidelity was the same, whether an MP, a bank manager or the editor of the Sunday Mirror (which broke the Booth story) was involved. In any non-

literal sense, that is manifestly not the case. Bank managers and newspaper editors do not pose as guardians of private morality. Ministers have too often done so.

Nobody would normally expect politicians to be paragons of virtue. In a more sensible world their private lives would not be considered relevant, providing they did not grossly flout the norms of behaviour. But if ministers lecture others on how they should behave, they must expect their own behaviour to come under scrutiny.

Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, recently upped the stakes with his xenophobic attack on foreigners for cheating and corruption. Does he believe the British are pure in this respect? One

after another, stories emerge of

corruption and incompetent misapplication of taxpayers' money: not just at Westminster Council but also in that quango-land to which so many loyal Tory supporters are appointed.

The mushrooming of quangos continues alongside the erosion of the powers of local authorities. Ultimately, corruption and that growing democratic deficit are likely to do the Tories more damage than deviation by MPs from the norms of monogamy.