Leading Article: Those who preach must also behave

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IF THE Conservative Party did not periodically proclaim itself to be the defender of basic family values, what its ministers did in their private lives would properly be a matter of political irrelevance. No doubt newspapers would continue to report the sexual peccadilloes of senior Tories. But such news items would, unless extraordinarily numerous, do the party and its leadership little serious damage.

Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, the situation is otherwise. At the last party conference, senior cabinet ministers vied with each other to deplore the strains imposed on society and the welfare budget by single mothers. All the while, lower down the ministerial ladder, was a colleague who had added to the number of such mothers by fathering the child of a Hackney councillor (also Tory).

Tim Yeo thus joins a long line of prominent Conservative politicians publicly identified as having had affairs more or less embarrassing to their party. It extends from John Profumo in the Sixties, through Cecil Parkinson to Alan Clark, David Mellor and the present minister for transport in London, Steven Norris. John Major's instinct, like that of Margaret Thatcher, has been to stand by ministers who find themselves in this kind of trouble. Being seen as a strong leader, Mrs Thatcher could do so with impunity. In Mr Major, such tolerance is likely to be seen as a further sign of weakness in a Prime Minister still struggling to establish his authority.

Hence the present calls from right-wingers that those who get caught be sacked. As one of them, David Evans MP, cynically put it: 'If you do it and don't get caught, fair enough. If you get caught, goodbye.'

The alternative, which many may find preferable, is for the party to drop its moralising rhetoric in favour of basic values, thus ceasing to make all prominent Tories hostages to fortune in this field. What is intolerable is for ministers to be preaching a moral message while they or their colleagues flout the values they publicly espouse.

As Douglas Hurd has pointed out, a wave of public disenchantment with politicians is sweeping the Western world. When politicians say one thing and do another, they risk increasing its momentum. It is in that discrepancy that the danger to public life lies.