Political Commentary: Adultery is the last great Conservative institution

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The Independent Online
IMMEDIATELY after a memorial service recently I came upon a Conservative MP of my acquaintance, by now a minister. He was, I thought, attired rather formally even for such an occasion, in black coat and striped trousers.

'Why are you dressed like that?' I asked.

'Because I'm a churchwarden here.'

'But you're an adulterer,' I expostulated.

I was indeed surprised to find that this particular Conservative was a churchwarden (even though the late Tom Driberg, a man of different tastes, had occupied the same position in another place of worship). He gave a light laugh and we passed on to other matters. In his earlier career he had enjoyed a reputation which, in Guards officers, ensures an admiring profile in the Daily Mail and the enduring friendship of the Princess of Wales.

No matter. The Conservative Party was after all, I reflected, the Adulterers' Party, always had been; just as the Labour Party was traditionally the Free Trips, Perks and All-Expenses-Paid Party. There was nothing very surprising about this division in the past. Nor is there today.

From time to time you may read learned articles convincingly demonstrating that, in occupation and class background, the parties' MPs are virtually indistinguishable. Do not believe a word of it. The Conservatives may be increasingly boorish, philistine, ignorant of literature and history. Labour may be remote from their constituents' concerns, surly, generally depressing. There is one big difference. The Conservatives are still richer.

They are required to maintain a house in the constituency. They have to have a house or flat in London as well. Some of them have a third residence, neither in the constituency nor in London. Labour, by contrast, has never insisted that its MPs should live in their constituencies, regarding this as a private matter which is of no concern to the local party, like the MP's choice of wife or, indeed, whether he has a wife of any kind.

The consequence of this civilised attitude by the People's Party is that its representative usually has one house, which may be outside his constituency altogether. For the three or so nights he is in London he has a room with a gas fire in a hotel near King's Cross or, with more companionship but in even greater squalor, shares a flat with another Labour legislator. How could anyone carry on an adulterous relationship while having a row about missing socks with Mr Dennis Skinner? The thought does not bear examination.

Accordingly, there is no mystery about the Conservatives' pre- eminence as the Adulterers' Party. It is exactly what one would expect. This is well understood by the voters, who show no disposition to punish the party electorally for this predilection.

In the past few weeks I have read more erroneous political history than I have for a long time. It is quite untrue that the Profumo affair 'brought down' the Macmillan government in 1963. Harold Macmillan resigned in the autumn of that year at the beginning of the party conference, because he was given the wrong prognosis of his prostate condition. He was succeeded by Lord Home, who, to most people's surprise, very nearly won the 1964 election. Macmillan probably would have won outright. So would R A Butler.

Nevertheless, in 1962-3 there was a smell of decay given out by the government, a feeling that it had been around for too long and had consequently become complacent in its attitudes and slack in its ways. The atmosphere today is different, not only in degree but in kind. The Government is not criticised for being old-fashioned. On the contrary: it is attacked for not being old-fashioned enough or, at any rate, for making a mess of its endeavours to return to the past.

Above all, there is no feeling that there are better times round the corner. There is no Lord Wilson telling us (some people even believed him) about 'restating our socialism in terms of the scientific revolution' and about the Britain that was 'going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution'. Instead Mr John Smith just sits there, looking increasingly like a Buddha that has recently, so to speak, swallowed the cream. Rarely has there been such a thoroughgoing embodiment of the truism that oppositions do not win elections, but governments lose them.

The feeling has been growing that this Government is doomed as long as it is led by Mr John Major. Observers see disintegration before their eyes. But here it is necessary to distinguish two forms of political extinction. There are governments against which public opinion turns irremediably, though this shift is not always apparent when it occurs: for example, Lord Wilson's administration of 1966-70. There are also governments which, even though opinion may already have turned against them, nevertheless bring about their own destruction. Usually the prime minister alone brings it about, whether from boredom or depression or some other combination of circumstances. Stanley Baldwin did it in 1923, Ramsay MacDonald in 1931, C R Attlee in 1951, Sir Edward Heath in 1974 and Lord Callaghan in 1979. All these prime ministers threw office away (though MacDonald remained imprisoned till 1935). The most doubtful case is Lord Callaghan's. He refused to contemplate the escape routes which were open to him. He was tired, fed up, had had enough.

I do not believe Mr Major is the kind of politician to throw office away comparably. The occasion for demonstrations of this kind came and went with the Maastricht Bill. Most people hope there will be nothing similar, though for myself I enjoyed it. Nor do I see him bowing out of the Conservative voting contest after the first ballot, which is what Reginald Maudling did in 1965, Sir Edward in 1975 and Lady Thatcher in 1990: at the time she went quietly though tearfully, reserving her stirring denunciations of her former colleagues not even for her memoirs but for our television screens.

It is, when you come to think of it, rich - not to say fruity - of Mr Michael Portillo to attack those who allegedly denounce our institutions when he claims to be the true successor of a lady who did not confine herself to denouncing those institutions. She went in for destroying as many of them as she could lay her hands on. But then, Mr Portillo has always reminded me of one of those horses trained by Mr Vincent O'Brien: hailed as the greatest animal of the decade, running one or two races or none at all, then retired to stud. Other Old Thatcherites are equally shameless. Mr Major's troubles derive from his incapacity to control them.

It is a mistake to believe that the Conservative right will sustain Mr Major in office to leave the position open to Mr Portillo at a later stage and to keep out Mr Kenneth Clarke. They are prepared to vote for Mr Clarke. But no one should underestimate Mr Major's determination to hang on to what he has. In the meantime, the only Conservative institution to survive intact remains adultery.