Letter from the editor

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The Independent Online
As I have struggled these latest wild few days to comprehend what has already become a surreal general election campaign, it has been hard to avoid the thought that Piers Merchant is a fictional figure. I know he isn't really. I met him, after all, long ago, when I was a trainee journalist in Newcastle and he was an unknown but ambitious local Thatcherite. But everything about him now, from his thin, mobile face and rather less flexible views, to his cliche-clogged entanglement with the painted nymph of Soho Square and her telephoto-toting attendant pixies from The Sun, is too exotically exaggerated for level-headed people to believe. It is, surely, a second-rate episode from a creaking TV comedy; it is a latex fantasy; it is an implausible scene from the worst kind of Westminster bonkbuster. How are we expected to swallow a word of it?

Yet it seems we must. Perhaps the central problem of the modern Conservative Party is not Europe, or the Prime Minister, or the polls; rather, it is that, mysteriously, the whole party has become drawn against its wishes into a world created not by the Saatchis or the No 10 policy unit, but by Edwina Currie and Michael Dobbs. Why? Have MPs become so hypnotised by their crudely-drawn fictional rivals that they themselves now behave not according to the rules of everyday life, but according to creaking plots and stylised characterisation? Yes, I know flesh and blood people are involved - and behaved badly, and were hurt - but it is very hard not to laugh.

At any rate, we have re-learned an old lesson: there are serious sleaze affairs (by and large, those involving money, where the errant MP can expect staunch support from his betters) and trivial sleaze (generally the ones involving sex, where the MP is quickly dumped). Odd, isn't it?

I suppose the assumption by the party leadership is that the public finds money scandals difficult to understand, so they matter less and may be weathered. Sex, by contrast, is something everybody can generally understand, and so matters more. In terms of realpolitik this may be right, but in every other way, of course, it is completely the wrong way around. Except in extreme circumstances, people's sexual behaviour should not be a yardstick for their fitness in public office; but their financial behaviour and honesty, being so close to their public duties, are vital. A man who betrays his wife may betray his colleagues, but someone who is dishonest about his personal finances is always and absolutely unfit to govern.

Paddy Ashdown, touring the country in his battle bus, says that the general public is not interested in sleaze, but is impatient for more discussion of health and education issues, tax, and the like. Judging by the broadsheet circulation of recent days - the election is turning readers off, not on - he may be right. Perhaps we are all too hotly cocooned in the fetid air of London gossip. Certainly, around the tables of the Savoy this week, and at the Connaught and other restaurants, there is an endless billowing of wild, hugely enjoyable rumours, involving a steadily increasing cast of politicians. Tycoons, City types and journos tell and retell fabulous stories of political greed, corruption and bed-hopping by the mighty. It all feels a little Decline and Fall, or like something out of Suetonius. For that reason, if no other, I am gladly heading off for a few days in the far north west of Scotland, where the only murmur is from the waves and any "storms" will be real, rain-flecked ones. Whether, wandering on the beach, I manage to rediscover a proper sense of proportion, readers will find out in due course.

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