Why the PM's discomfort has only just begun

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The Independent Online
It was only a shortage of space which prevented me last week from referring Mr Robin Cook to the lines:

Virtue won't hurt you,

But vice is nice.

Needless to say, I did not have Mr Cook's extra-matrimonial adventures in mind. I did not know about them at the time. I know hardly any more today, except what I read in our great popular newspapers. No, what I was thinking of was Mr Cook's pose as the Ethics Man of the present administration. I was thinking particularly of his promise to curtail or, at least, to review the export of arms to states whose aggressive dispositions or denial of human rights to their subjects or both were in question.

At the time, I expressed scepticism, pointing out that the most pacific members of Labour's left wing - Mrs Audrey Wise in Preston, Mr Tony Benn when he was in Bristol - acquired a sudden enthusiasm for instruments of terror or destruction when they happened to be manufactured in their own constituencies. Mr Cook is evidently no different from them. He and his officials have conducted their review and concluded that it is perfectly all right to carry on supplying arms to Indonesia.

This state neatly fulfils both Mr Cook's criteria: it is aggressive externally and repressive internally, in East Timor and elsewhere. What this shows is that humbug is not a quality of which the Conservative Party possesses a monopoly. All political parties and all governments have their share of it. The present government is no miraculous exception: quite the reverse.

On the extra-matrimonial side, however, Labour's recent record is good. On this column's humbugometer it registers a low reading. It was not always so.

In the days of Harold Wilson and the head of his morality patrol, George Wigg - there really was a morality patrol at the post-war Butlin's holiday camps - a game called Hunt the Issue used to be played. Sexual behaviour was never admitted to be in question. Instead the issue, often varied to "the real issue", was supposed to be something else entirely: misleading or even lying to the House; ministerial responsibility; something called "judgment"; or, most popular of all, "national security". One of these was generally enough to dispose of an erring politician whose fate, for the time being at any rate, would tend to bear out Proverbs xiii. 15: "The way of transgressors is hard."

But I do not want to be unfair to Wilson. He was both a Christian and a tolerant man. In his personal dealings, he was the epitome of kindness; much as Lady Thatcher was later on. When he was Minister of Agriculture after 1964, the late Fred Peart was having an affair with a senior secretary of the Parliamentary Labour Party. This was well-known at Westminster and aroused no particular comment one way or the other. But Wigg took it upon himself to summon Peart, inform him that he knew what he was up to and tell him it had to stop. Peart not only replied that it was none of his business but, to his credit, went to Wilson to complain about Wigg's intrusion into his private life. Wilson havered and made excuses: "You know George, Fred...loose cannon...wild card...no business to bother you...misunderstood my instructions...shall reprimand him." And nothing more was heard of it.

It is difficult to extract any consistent principle from the ministerial resignations that have occurred on account of sexual behaviour since Lord Parkinson's in 1983. He resigned after staying with his wife, as Lady Thatcher had advised him to do, and refusing to marry his mistress. But in 1987, having done his porridge and paid his debt to society, he was back in the cabinet, though in a less dominating position than the one he had previously occupied. Lord Lawson, by contrast, left his wife for a member of the staff of the Commons library, moved into her house in Wandsworth, fathered a child, married her, had another child and escaped censure or, indeed, much notice of any kind. One can only conclude that Lord Lawson manages these things better than Lord Parkinson - or maybe knows more accommodating women.

The resignations of 1992-94 - successively, of Mr David Mellor, Mr Tim Yeo, Lord Caithness and Mr Michael Brown - were, in retrospect, all quite unnecessary. For that matter, they were unnecessary at the time. There might have been a case for Mr Mellor's departure owing to his imprudent acceptance of free hospitality and trips: but what he did with the actress, and what, if anything, he was wearing when he did it, were surely matters they could have been allowed to decide for themselves. He and others were victims of the lynch-law which is allowed to prevail in the Conservative Party from time to time.

On the other hand, the great Mr Steven Norris at one point had more mistresses than I have usable pairs of shoes and managed to keep his job as a minister. I have asked Mr Norris several times how he managed to survive. He concludes that it was because he was separated from his wife; did not go on about family values; and proclaimed that he was entitled to do more or less as he liked in his private life. He says also that the news of his numerous adventures emerged before Mr John Major's "back to basics" campaign. From his point of view, the timing was right.

Ah, back to basics. How many follies have been committed in its name! Several times have I read Mr Major's conference speech in which he first uttered the cry. It is not about sexual behaviour at all. Sex is not mentioned once. It is about reading, writing, arithmetic, good manners, consideration for others: that sort of thing. But it was taken, not least by our popular newspapers, to be a call for a standard of sexual behaviour, certainly in ministers and probably in the rest of us as well, which would have been welcomed in Puritan New England and not been out of place in John Calvin's Geneva.

There was nothing whatever in Mr Major's observations to justify this interpretation. It was largely the work of the press. He and his colleagues did little enough to challenge it. On the contrary: they meekly accepted it. John Smith and, later, Tony Blair were content to allow ministers to stew in a pot which they had filled and under which the newspapers had lighted a fire. If he had been an earnest seeker after truth, Mr Blair would have said: "Hey, hang on a minute. Back to basics has got nothing to do with this." But he is not a seeker after truth. Why should he be? He is a politician.

But despite his on the whole liberal record, I see trouble ahead. There will be difficulties. There is, after all, no clear distinction to be drawn between private and public life. And what P G Wodehouse calls the divine pash remains, with religion and nationality, the most powerful human force - and the most destructive. My prediction is that the parliamentary party of the late 1990s will come to fulfil much the same function as the Open University summer schools of the 1970s as a means of facilitating an exchange of sexual partners. There are lots of youngish men and women away from home with nothing much to do. In Mr Cook, Mr Blair's - or Mr Peter Mandelson's - embarrassments have only just begun.