Summertime ... and the Tories are sleazy

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The Independent Online
We have been having the kind of weather which takes our legislators out on to the Terrace. Until recently, some of the journalists who ply their trade in the Palace of Westminster - holders of lobby passes and a few others - were entitled to join them in these cool surroundings. This privilege was comparatively new. It dated from the end of the 1960s. Our benefactor was the then Labour member for Buckingham and chairman of the catering committee, the late Captain Robert Maxwell. He also refounded Annie's Bar, which was equally laudable, and sold off the Commons' wine cellar to some brewery chain or other, which was thoroughly reprehensible.

A year ago, the Maxwell Concession was withdrawn. The moving spirit behind this change was not a Conservative but, paradoxically, a Labour member, Mr Michael Martin, who sits for Glasgow Springburn and is the Captain's successor on the catering committee. I write "paradoxically" because the withdrawal of the Terrace privilege symbolised the worsening relations between Conservative politicians and the press which had occurred steadily in the 1990s. Relations between Labour and journalists remained much the same - with the added spice of a few temper-tantrums from Mr Alastair Campbell and the odd calculated indiscretion by Mr Peter Mandelson. But Tories and press are now in what the psychologists might call a hate-hate relationship.

In the old days, the chairman of the Conservative conference would, on the first day, extend a welcome to "our friends from the press". There would follow polite but restrained applause. It was all quite embarrassing. But the scene is unlikely to recur. Conservatives no longer regard journalists as their friends.

In a sense they never did. It was, I think, Oliver Poole (or it may have been Christopher Soames) who once remarked that, while some of them were no doubt perfectly all right in their way, they were hardly the kind of people one could have for the weekend. What Conservatives expect is the support of the popular papers, the Sun, the Daily Express and the Daily Mail, together with that of the Daily Telegraph, and the respectful attention of the Times and the Financial Times. This they are not getting, or not in the enthusiastic measure to which they think they are entitled.

There is another reason for the Tory - it is not too strong a word - detestation of the press: the papers' power to get rid of erring ministers virtually at will. The latest one to go was the unlamented Mr Rod Richards last week. Resignation on account of sex is, since 1945, an exclusively Conservative phenomenon. In 1963 Mr John Profumo had to go because of his connection with Ms Christine Keeler, though the "real issue" (in these cases the supposedly real issue changes by the week) was claimed to be that he had lied to the Commons. In the same year, Mr Denzil Freeth resigned in a homosexuality case. In 1973 Lord Lambton had to go after a three- in-a-bed story, which moved Mr Ian Aitken, then political correspondent of the Guardian, to provide a new version of the Eton Boating Song:

Jolly vice-ring weather,

Three in a bed is fun.

And we'll all resign together

When the Inquiry's done.

Someone who did resign with Lord Lambton was Lord Jellicoe. One of the prostitutes involved in the case had "Jellicoe" written in a notebook. The peer was interviewed by the constabulary, admitted that he had consorted with prostitutes and promptly resigned. But the women he had been seeing were not the same as those involved with Lord Lambton. The entry in the notebook referred not to Lord Jellicoe but to The Jellicoe Arms, a public house used as a place of assignation. There is a moral here somewhere, but I cannot quite work out what it is.

In 1982, Sir Nicholas Fairbairn's resignation was ostensibly brought about by his mishandling of a Scottish prosecution, but contained a distinct sexual component. In 1983 Lord Parkinson had to resign for staying with his wife and refusing to marry his mistress. Then we have a gap of nine years until Mr David Mellor's resignation in September 1992. On that occasion, Mr John Major started off with the admirably liberal sentiment that Mr Mellor's private life was his own affair and that he enjoyed the Prime Minister's fullest confidence.

But the papers would not let go. Mr Mellor was pictured in Chelsea kit which, it was claimed, he wore in bed. Both the picture and the claim were false: "a bit of fun", as the papers put it at the time. It also emerged that Mr Mellor had accepted free holidays, air trips and hospitality. Parliament was re-called not for Mr Mellor but in the aftermath of our exit from the ERM. Sir Marcus Fox, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee and a Yorkshire Methodist, waited on the Prime Minister to tell him that the lads were not standing for any more and that Mellor had to go. He duly went. The accepted wisdom is that he went not because of the free sex but because of the free trips. My own view is that Mr Mellor was unlucky and that, if Parliament had not been recalled, he would have survived.

There was a gap of 15 months before Mr Tim Yeo's case came up in January 1994. By this time, the Back to Basics campaign was well under way. In its original form, this had nothing whatever to do with sexual morality, but was more about reading, writing, arithmetic, good manners, consideration for others, cricket, bicycles and warm beer: that sort of thing. But the papers persuaded themselves that it was all about sex, which was more interesting. Even so, Mr Major began by expressing every confidence in Mr Yeo, who had, like Lord Parkinson, both stayed with his wife and fathered an illegitimate child.

But after a few weeks, Mr Major caved in. Lord Caithness resigned at the same time because his wife had committed suicide, which, one might have thought, would in a civilised society be the occasion for sympathy rather than for censure, however distressing the surrounding circumstances. Mr Major then proceeded to put his liberal policy into reverse and give the tabloid press the power to determine the composition of his government. It was made clear that any indiscretion must be followed by instant resignation. The first victim was Mr Michael Brown in May 1994, who had been "revealed" as a homosexual, though he had never made any secret of it.

The great survivor is, as we know, Mr Steven Norris, who at one time had five mistresses simultaneously, which is more than I have useable pairs of shoes. Nor does it seem to be entirely true that he was throughout this period (as he claims) separated from his wife. This makes his feat all the more extraordinary. The other, lesser-known, survivor is Lord Lawson. He left his wife, fathered an illegitimate child and remained Financial Secretary to the Treasury under Lady Thatcher. He had the luck or the good sense to keep out of the papers, and produced a happy ending by remarrying in 1980.