IT WAS two days after the discovery of the body of Stephen Milligan, and the minister was leaning back in his chair searching for words to describe John Major's predicament. The best he could offer came from a notice he had seen once in a Caribbean hotel: 'In the event of a hurricane, sit perfectly still and wait until it passes. You will usually find that the island returns to calm quickly.'
Whether he is right, and the island does return quickly to calm, remains to be seen. But certainly Tories last week were in no doubt that they had been caught in a hurricane. And, to pursue the metaphor, it left plenty of wreckage and some lasting structural damage.
Two effects were at work last week. The first was a simple one: politicians were already held in low esteem, and the circumstances of Milligan's death made matters worse. Their public and their private morality and behaviour are seen to be in conflict, and they have been exposed to ridicule.
The second effect was one that raised echoes of Profumo. A hurricane of rumours blew through Westminster, some connected with the death of Milligan and some not. Cabinet ministers were on the point of being exposed as homosexuals by the tabloids; there were 'gay sex rings' and 'three-in-a-bed romps' with footballers; Milligan had been murdered because of some secret he knew (he was parliamentary private secretary to a defence minister, Jonathan Aitken); MI5, or even some foreign intelligence service, was involved.
In his report on the Profumo affair in 1963, Lord Denning described a similar atmosphere. 'The admission of Mr Profumo that he had lied to the House of Commons so shook the confidence of the people of this country that they were ready to believe rumours which previously they would have rejected out of hand . . . the word of any informer, however bad his character, might be preferred to the word of a minister. And informers abounded. They saw a chance of making money be telling their stories to the newspapers as Christine Keeler did. Hence rumours spread.'
As last week ended the frenzy was dying away, but Tories were still in shock. The Oxford-educated MP, elected in 1992, was one of their brightest young hopes. 'If you had told me the story and left out the name,' said one senior colleague, 'Milligan would have appeared in the top ten of the characters not on my list.'
One minister said: 'It is so mad, so macabre, so distasteful that many people just won't talk about it. They will gossip about ministers and mistresses, but not this. Frankly, I also veer between being embarrassed and just sad for him. Because his life went one day and his reputation went the next.'
MANY of last week's rumours were based on misunderstandings and suspicions about events immediately surrounding the discovery of the MP's body. With the dust now settling, it is possible to look at those events more closely.
Milligan was last seen alive a week ago yesterday, walking back to his home in Black Lion Lane, a pleasant street in Chiswick, West London. It seems that he died that evening, or early on Sunday.
He was first missed on Monday, when he failed to turn up at the Commons. His secretary, Vera Taggart, called his home. Receiving no answer, she then established that he was not in his constituency. By early afternoon she was growing concerned, she decided to go to Chiswick to investigate.
What she found made her immediately suspicious. The first-floor curtains at the little terraced house were drawn, milk bottles were still on the doorstep and the letter-box was filled with mail. She banged on the door, but there was no answer. At 3.30pm, from a telephone box at the end of Black Lion Lane, she rang Julie Kirkbride.
A political reporter on the Daily Telegraph, Kirkbride had once been Milligan's girlfriend. They had met at the Conservative Party conference in 1988 and quickly became close. They were both intensely interested in politics, they took holidays together and planned their careers together. She wrote in her paper last week: 'I am sure he wanted a wife and family and was looking for the right girl. Our relationship ended because I was just not that girl.'
They had, however, remained close and she had been seen regularly by Milligan's side in the Eastleigh constituency, appearing at a function there not long before the tragedy.
When Vera Taggart rang, Kirkbride was away from her desk but she took a second call 10 minutes later, leaving the office to ring back from a more private phone. Kirkbride said there was a key hidden at the house, and explained where she thought it was.
Kirkbride then contacted Sally Russell, secretary to the Telegraph political team, and at around 3.50pm in Westminster's Strangers cafeteria, told her about Taggart's call. Kirkbride was already alarmed and upset. Her tears at this time were noted by others in the canteen, including a police officer who later reported what he had seen to his superiors. Why had she been crying before the police had even found the body? The question prompted some speculation, but the answer is apparently simple, that she was afraid for her friend.
Kirkbride and Russell were worried that Taggart might not be able to find the key, so they left the Commons for Chiswick at 4.35pm. By the time they arrived, Black Lion Lane was filled with police, the house was cordoned off and an ambulance was standing by. At first the police refused to say anything, but finally they confirmed a body had been found. A distraught Kirkbride was taken to the local bistro and given a brandy.
Taggart had found the key herself, entered the house and discovered Milligan lying on a pine table in circumstances described vividly and often in the past week. He was naked apart from two stockings on his legs and a third on his arm. A black plastic bag was over his head with a length of flex wound around the bag at his neck, one end leading to his hand, the other end running down his body to his left leg, where it was tied in a knot. Taggart dialled 999 at 4.23pm.
VERA TAGGART was distraught after her discovery. She knew Milligan very well, having worked for him before he became an MP, at the Sunday Times in the mid-1980s. She was taken to Hammersmith police station, and from there she rang the chairman of the Conser vative Party, Sir Norman Fowler, at about 5.15pm. There are two versions of what happened next. According to one, Sir Norman was in a meeting and a rather incoherent call was taken by his secretary. Because of the garbled nature of the communication, the chairman did not return the call until 6.10pm.
The other version has it that Sir Norman and his deputy, Gerry Malone, received the message while they were watching the television news and returned the call without delay.
In Downing Street, it was some time before 6pm that the Prime Minister, in a meeting with senior staff, was handed a note telling him the news. The meeting carried on, with more notes being passed to Major as more details emerged.
Fowler and Malone made their way to Hammersmith police station, arriving at 6.30pm. According to Central Office they waited for the police to finish their interview with Vera Taggart. They were in the station for about two-and-a-half hours. This wait gave rise to another rumour, that some of this time was spent in a heated row with the police over allegations that information about the circumstances of Milligan's death had been leaked to the press by police officers. This has been strongly denied.
Nevertheless, when Fowler emerged around 9.45pm on the steps of Hammersmith police station, he appeared taken aback by the barrage of questions from reporters who seemed to know as much, if not more, than he did. Tory MPs were later to voice anger at the way in which details emerged, and one suggested that reporters must have received 'tip-offs from police officers . . . presumably for money'.
The truth is that officers gave little away. The inquiry was headed by Detective Superintendent Brian Edwards, an officer who is famously tight- lipped in the presence of journalists. For much of Monday evening Mike Cobb, his press officer, could not even confirm that the dead man was Milligan. But while Cobb was standing outside Milligan's house and saying he was unable to answer questions, his pager was almost jumping out of his pocket. The messages were from newspaper offices. Political correspondents were reporting what MPs and whips were saying - that the dead man was Milligan, and he was wearing stockings. Could Cobb confirm?
Some time after the discovery of the body Vera Taggart had rung the Palace of Westminster and been put through to the office of the Serjeant-at- Arms, the administrative hub of the building. The message was somewhat garbled and, as with her call to Tory Central Office, the result appears to have been some confusion. There followed desperate attempts to contact Milligan. A government whip, Andrew Mackay, rang all the numbers he had for Milligan and then tried to telephone Kirkbride in the press gallery. He was told that she had gone to Chiswick.
Later, when asked in the lobby by journalists about the identity of the body known to have been found in Milligan's home, Mackay confirmed that it was the MP. He made a point of contacting Kirkbride, who spent much of the evening at Hammersmith police station, to warn her of some of the emerging details about the state in which the body had been found - she had not previously been told. Witnesses said she was stunned.
How did the details emerge? The police pointed out that they were not so secret. A large number of officers were at the scene, as was an ambulance team, and their radio traffic is listened to by reporters and members of the public. Vera Taggart, who saw the body, made several telephone calls.
WHATEVER the source of the news, the initial response was stunned amazement. Stephen could not have done this, cried his many friends in the media and Westminster. He must have been murdered . . . he must have committed suicide . . . he must have done, well, anything but this.
Some of the wilder speculation arose from the fact that the police were officially treating the death as 'suspicious', meaning that they were not certain whether it was murder, suicide or accident.
In fact there was little doubt. The practice of auto- erotic asphyxiation, or 'scarfing' - starving the brain of oxygen to heighten orgasm - may have been unknown to 95 per cent of the British public, but accidental deaths of this kind are familiar enough to the police. Until the post-mortem examination, however, the case had to remain 'suspicious'.
The autopsy was conducted by Iain West, one of the most experienced Home Office pathologists, and the police confirmed on Thursday that Milligan died from asphyxiation due to the 'compression of the neck by a ligature'. A second person could, theoretically, still be involved, but the police show no signs of believing this. The investigation rapidly wound down. By Friday just six officers were on the case.
When West gives his opinion at the inquest at Fulham Coroner's Court this week, he is expected to say that the death was a text-book case of auto- erotic asphyxiation.
THE NEWS soon had its impact on politics. Sir Norman Fowler proclaimed that this incident was so freakish, so private and extraordinary that it could happen in any party, but the dread words 'back to basics' made a nonsense of his efforts. The Prime Minister was drawn into the controversy when, during a phone-in on Radio Leicester he was asked about the case and replied that Milligan must have been 'pretty miserable' (see facing page). The Milligan family, while praising Major's motives, disputed that description.
The 'Profumo Effect' of rumour feeding rumour, was starting to operate. On the day before Milligan's body was discovered, the People carried a report that the homosexual footballer Justin Fashanu had tried to do a pounds 300,000 deal for a gay sex ring story which was said to be capable of toppling the Government. Could this have tipped Milligan towards suicide? So intense was the speculation that detectives flew up to Edinburgh, where the football star was based. Confronted by the police, Fashanu denied that he had ever met Milligan.
Gossip about homosexuals at Westminster was fed by an article in the Times by Matthew Parris, a former Conservative MP who described from personal experience the double lives of some homosexual MPs. Parris's article was an eloquent and enlightening essay but it focused attention on homosexuality - and the looming vote on the age of consent - although there was no evidence Milligan was homosexual.
Amid rumours of MI5 involvement and whips' inquiries into homosexual rings, the atmosphere became febrile. It was, said one MP, 'the release of a lot of pent-up emotion, the feeling that things are inevitably going to get worse and worse and the fear that this incident was almost inevitably connected to other things'. A feeling of doom swept through Conservative ranks.
Whatever the circumstances surrounding the death of Stephen Milligan, this was not another Profumo. That, after all, presented a serious security risk directly involving a senior minister and a Soviet diplomat at the height of the Cold War. But Milligan's death came at a time when the Government was extremely fragile.
Public concern is running high over sleaze, financial as much as moral: the apparent corruption at Westminster Council, the Government's behaviour over arms to Iraq, the questionable use of aid money in Malaysia, the purchase and sale of council houses by Tory MPs, the Tory change of tack on its tax pledges. 'Back to basics' leaves the Government exposed on another front and the string of personal scandals - Tim Yeo, Gary Waller, Steven Norris and others - has tainted the party of basic values with hypocrisy. Rightly or wrongly, in the public mind Milligan has joined that company.
Moreover, the act in which Milligan seems to have been involved is outside the comprehension of most grassroots Conservatives, heightening the contrast between the way of life and beliefs of the Tory faithful and those of their representatives at Westminster.
As MPs returned to their constituencies on Friday their mood was one of nervousness. One Conservative source described the feeling among the party workers as one of 'neurosis and anxiety'. He added: 'Up to now people have been just too embarrassed to talk about this. But I think that, back in the constituencies, our people are going to be very angry this weekend.'
That view was echoed yesterday by one MP who held a constituency dinner on Friday night. 'To keep them on your side,' he said, 'you have to stray on to dangerous territory. If you tell them John Major is doing fine, showing firm leadership and the economy is picking up they will either collapse in hysterics - or walk out.'
Additional reporting by Jason Bennetto.
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