Resigned to their fate: the sad truth about sex, scandals and British politicians

A fair amount of talent has been lost quite unnecessarily. We are conditioned to assume they are up to no good

Steve Richards
Tuesday 30 November 2004 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


One of the more destructive myths whirling around British politics is that ministers and shadow ministers almost never resign. Instead, they cling to their posts with a grim determination, striding on arrogantly in spite of the corrupt chaos they have caused.

One of the more destructive myths whirling around British politics is that ministers and shadow ministers almost never resign. Instead, they cling to their posts with a grim determination, striding on arrogantly in spite of the corrupt chaos they have caused.

The opposite is the case. Ministers and shadow ministers are forced to resign with an absurd frequency. Only a fortnight ago, Boris Johnson lost his post for not being entirely candid about an affair. Who is entirely candid about affairs? Now the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, is under pressure for an affair conducted at a time when he was in no other relationship.

We will return to Mr Blunkett later, but first let us recall some of the ministerial resignations from recent years. Peter Mandelson lost his job twice. Geoffrey Robinson resigned. Stephen Byers departed. The Home Office minister, Beverley Hughes, went more recently. These were resignations from a government with a landslide majority and under no great political pressure. Under the previous, more precarious, Conservative administration, David Mellor resigned within months of securing an important new Cabinet post, partly because of an affair with an obscure Spanish actress. Tim Yeo lost his job because he fathered a child during an affair. Was it the affair or the fact that he had a child that ended his ministerial career? I cannot remember. Can anyone?

In all these cases, in different ways, the politicians were performing rather well. Mr Johnson was in the novel position of being a Conservative who was well known to the public. Mr Mandelson was acquiring a reputation as a skilful secretary of state for Trade and Industry and then latterly as a reasonably successful Northern Ireland secretary. Mr Robinson had been heavily involved in the successful implementation of the windfall tax on the privatised utilities.

Mr Byers had been the first transport secretary to address the huge failings of Railtrack, and was widely admired by transport specialists. Mr Mellor had the potential to be a supremely successful culture secretary (or heritage secretary as he was known at the time). Unusually for a culture secretary, he had a passionate interest in culture.

Mr Yeo was a competent environment minister, a pro European moderate in an increasingly hysterical eurosceptic government. Ms Hughes was a highly rated home office minister, so valued that Mr Blunkett found time and emotional energy to be deeply depressed by her resignation, quite a tribute given all the other items on the Home Secretary's agenda.

It is difficult now to recall the precise reasons why these various individuals were forced to go, although at the time of their departures nothing else in the world seemed to matter. Mr Mandelson accepted the offer of a loan from Geoffrey Robinson to buy a house. They were both in opposition at the time. Mr Robinson was sacked for lending a colleague some money without making any gain from the deal. Mr Mandelson's second resignation was more about Downing Street's tendency to panic in a media storm. The origins of the non-scandal stemmed from Mr Mandelson's attempts to encourage investment in the ridiculous Dome, rather than from any personal gain.

As for Mr Byers, he had got into a muddle over who said what to whom in his inconsequential battle with insecure civil servants in his department. It all began when his adviser, Jo Moore, wrote the infamous memo declaring that 11 September was a good day for burying bad news. What happened to Ms Moore? She resigned, of course, a career finished forever. Meanwhile, Ms Hughes got caught out on Newsnight at the end of a long day. The moment she realised she had not been truthful on the programme, she resigned.

These were all relatively trivial matters. A fair amount of political talent has been lost over the years quite unnecessarily. The mundane truth is that there is not much scandal in British politics. We have just become conditioned to assume that politicians are up to no good.

This is partly the fault of the politicians themselves. If they can sense partisan advantage in exaggerating the moral weakness of their opponents, they will take it. The Government is still facing the consequences of its opportunistic exploitation of John Major's apparently sleazy administration. The last Conservative government had some dodgy figures in its ranks. They all paid severe penalties, ranging from jail to wrecked careers. On the whole, though, the Major government was not stuffed full of crooks. Yet New Labour screamed "sleaze" at every opportunity.

John Major's "back to basics" campaign, interpreted by his allies as an attack on the permissive society, also created a bizarre atmosphere of terror that must have extended to Downing Street itself in the light of what we now know about the former prime minister's previous sexual dalliance. I recall preparing for a radio interview during this period with an obscure Conservative MP. In order to do a test for the sound level, I asked him where he had been for his holiday. He replied he had had a relaxing few days in a hotel, where he spent most of the time in a jacuzzi. He paused, looked around in horror, and then added he had been with his wife. These were terrifying days to be a Conservative politician and the fear had been caused by their own prime minister.

But the media has a responsibility as well. The recent hysteria over MPs' expenses was a case in point. MPs attempted to be more transparent, partly in response to pressure in the media. We reciprocated by making the most of this new information in ways that implied that they were up to no good. The media rarely highlights the huge constraints imposed on elected politicians, the rules that are so strict that ministers risk their political lives if they accept the gift of a ping pong ball, the scrutiny from independent committees and from the mediawith its growing interest in politicians as their power diminishes.

Indeed, there is a great gap between the way ministers see themselves, often frustrated by their lack of power, and the way they are perceived by outsiders. In the 1990s, the mistress of a virtually unknown Conservative backbencher declared that she had fallen in love with his power. She was in love with an illusion. The MP wielded no power.

I have often quoted in this column David Blunkett's perceptive observation that even ministers often have responsibilities without power. I doubt if Mr Blunkett feels glamorously powerful; he probably senses that some in the media wield more power. Still, Mr Blunkett's public responsibilities were unaffected during his affair with a woman from the media. Some disapprove of Mr Blunkett's authoritarian instincts, but they and others must accept that he was authoritarian before, during and after his affair. I cannot get worked up about any of the minor allegations made against him.

Of course, we must be alert to corruption. But there is a danger of being too alert, of seeing wrongdoing when there are more innocent explanations. In Britain, it is not that politicians never resign. They resign too often.

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