Political Commentary: Party games with private lives

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IT WAS a small incident and not, of itself, significant. One Saturday evening two weeks before polling day, Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats' defence spokesman, took a call from a broadcasting journalist. Paddy Ashdown, the reporter confidently asserted, was being forced to stand down because of a breaking scandal; how, he wanted to know, did Mr Campbell view the prospects of taking over the party leadership?

Last week, in the fallout from the Mellor affair, the editor of the Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, claimed that a Cabinet-inspired plot had been hatched during the election to smear the Liberal Democrat leader and undermine his campaign.

This sent a tremor through Conservative Central Office which, after calls to all Cabinet ministers, denied the allegation. But as well as shocking the Tory establishment with which he had been closely aligned, Mr MacKenzie drew attention to one incontrovertible fact: scandal, smear and disinformation were never far from the surface in April election.

In February, Mr Ashdown publicly admitted a brief relationship with his secretary, Tricia Howard. Thereafter, the election sex scandal was the dog that failed to bark. But for the media and political worlds, private lives were the unspoken issue.

Rumours - none proven - circulated not only about Mr Ashdown but also about several leading Tory and Labour politicians. To many, the suprise of last week was not that a revelation had surfaced about a leading politician, but that it had taken so long to happen.

Election smears are nothing new. During the 1987 campaign, allegations surfaced about the private lives of Roy Hattersley and David (now Sir David) Steel, then leader of the Liberals.

As Des Wilson, then president of the Liberal Party, recalled, the tactic was intended to provoke a response. In his account of the 1987 campaign, he wrote that the idea, made clear by the Sun and the Star, was that if the Liberal leader 'didn't wish to deny the allegations, they would be published with a 'David Steel refused to comment' line.' The party issued the denial, whereupon 'the story appeared in both newspapers on the 'Steel denies allegations' theme'. By denying the allegations Mr Steel had provided given newspapers an opportunity to publicise them.

In 1992, the line of attack was similar. A steady stream of calls came into the Cowley Street headquarters of the Liberal Democrats, claiming that a scandal was about to break. It became clear that someone, somewhere was trying to goad Mr Ashdown into a response.

The calls fell into two categories. Many came from known political journalists who had heard the story was liable to break. But a more sinister category offered anonymous tip-offs from individuals claiming to work for a tabloid paper, but refusing to identify themselves.

Was it all self-fuelling journalistic hype? Veteran Liberal Democrat campaigners believe not. Telephone harassment was, according to one 'persistent beyond randomness', infinitely worse than in 1987 and consistent enough to point to a 'guiding intelligence'.

Des Wilson, this time campaign director, told staff that it was an attempt to destabilise his campaign, sap morale and, by keeping the party on edge, prompt a mistake.

The Liberal Democrats knew that tabloid reporters had asked several women about Mr Ashdown. Having confessed to one affair, he was an obvious target. They were also aware of claims that reports would surface overseas in Der Spiegel.

Rumours intensified towards weekends, with speculation that Sunday papers would unleash new allegations. Usually on Saturday night, an aide would buy a first edition of the News of the World. On the final Saturday of the campaign, word reached Cowley Street that the News of the World had called a press conference to brief reporters on a sensational political story. The source (not from the paper) was thought to be reliable, but the press conference never materialised.

That a story effectively smearing Ashdown failed to make it into print is due to his campaigners' skill in refusing to take the bait. Their nerve was tested, most crucially in the week before polling day. Mr Ashdown had campaigned all day in the south, before a rally at Eastbourne. Backstage, his media minder Dick Newby learnt that the following day's Sun would run an article about a scandal involving an unnamed politician.

During the helicopter journey to London after Mr Ashdown's final appointment of the day, the subject was broached. Bitten once in 1987, the Liberal Democrats elected to ignore the story. The article duly ran, reporting 'disturbing rumours' about 'one of our senior political figures' who 'has had affairs with five different women'. Without names, the story failed to take off.

What was the source of this persistent rumour-mongering? Undoubtedly, many were self-fuelling. But it seems certain that the atmosphere of intrigue was exploited - probably unofficially - by the other parties. Few suspect an orchestrated campaign from Conservative Central Office, where staff insist that they were instructed to avoid talk of scandals. The perceived wisdom was that, if a Tory tabloid published allegations against a Labour figure, the Mirror would respond in kind with revelations about a Cabinet minister (not, interestingly, David Mellor). In a war of private-life revelations, no one would come out well. Mutual deterrence held the peace.

At Labour Party headquarters, an eye was kept on a handful of politicians deemed vulnerable to attack, including those who had been targets in previous elections. MPs who had suffered recent embarrassments, such as Greville Janner's mention in a court case, were also watched. Labour, too, received phone calls threatening imminent scandals.

During the late stages of the campaign Gerald Kaufman, then shadow foreign affairs minister, issued a solicitor's letter when the party press office judged that allegations about him were about to break. The decision was later regarded as an error as newspapers reported the letter. But, probably because of Mr Kaufman's low profile in the campaign, no lasting damage was done.

None of this proves conclusively that a plot or plots existed. But it presents a picture of an election liable to degenerate into allegation and counter-claim. It also shows that some elements would happily have used rumours to mount a campaign of intimidation.

Compounded by last week's events, it reinforces the impression of a public and political obsession with private lives. As one Labour man observed last week, if Jack Lang - Mr Mellor's French counterpart - had been given similar publicity, he would probably have been promoted. In Britain things are different. As long as private lives grip the public imagination, a section of the political world will regard them as fair game.

Appropriately, Westminster's latest guessing game involves a new whodunit by Nigel West (otherwise known as the MP Rupert Allason). It features a Labour MP with marital difficulties, a Tory conducting a torrid affair and a minister with a penchant for rent boys. Already a glossary is in circulation.

Donald Macintrye is on holiday