In the world of political commentary, to quote Enoch Powell’s dictum that for politicians to complain about the press is like ships’ captains complaining about the sea has become almost tedious. But the brisk finality of that remark is too useful to dispense with. Is it, though, correct? Observing the awful story of David Laws’s resignation unfolding over last weekend has caused me to question whether Powell’s really is the last word on the subject.
On one thing Powell was right: it is not for politicians to complain. That Mr Laws has not complained (and, I think, genuinely doesn’t complain) has made him the more admirable, and admired.
But what Powell did not say is that the world of political commentary is a world in which judgments like ‘fair’ or ‘unfair’ have no place. We are apt to speak, we Westminster-watchers, as though the media judgment were simply force majeure, in whose presence all are helpless. We persuade ourselves that when the reports and judgments of the media bring a politician down, what did happen had to happen. This inevitablism ignores the part we ourselves have played — or suppose to be a part already written for us by destiny.
Yet as Laws fell there seemed to be moments when things could have taken a different course; interventions, or non-interventions, that may have been critical.
I can’t put myself in the mind of Mr Laws, and it’s possible that the minute he saw something in the newspapers about his being gay, nothing could stop him from quitting. People do react to this kind of exposure in strange ways (I’ve watched Peter Mandelson turn a squall, of my own inadvertent making, into a storm), and if Laws never even considered carrying on, then maybe my fellow columnist Hugo Rifkind is right: he was unsuited to politics in the first place.
But it’s equally possible — and I believe this — that it will not just have been the fact of exposure, but also the nature of the media response that tipped Mr Laws into resignation. It did matter how we reacted on Friday night and Saturday.
In case I’m in any way typical, let me chart my own uncertain feelings over that period of time. Very late on Friday evening I heard about the Daily Telegraph’s imminent story, and a little before midnight contacted the Times to alter (in later editions) a few lines of my Saturday column, to reflect knowledge of it. My partner and I checked first editions of other papers online. Early reactions had been to treat the story with restraint.
Then my old friend Michael Brown (a former Tory MP, gay, and an Independent columnist) telephoned. He had agreed to some media interviews in the morning. We talked for some time, in a provisional way, concluding (I think) that the question of whether Laws’s relationship amounted to a partnership was a grey area; that he had probably misjudged; but that how serious this was, and how fatal to his job, was uncertain. I went to bed cast down because I admire Mr Laws; and still unable to make up my mind.
Next morning, on the Today programme, Laws’s friend Jeremy Browne MP almost made it up for me, robustly defending the Chief Secretary; but he sounded more like a stout-hearted mate than a dispassionate observer. I wavered.
Then Matthew d’Ancona almost pushed me the other way. Never a rent-a-quote, and someone whose opinion I would always listen to, he was Today’s last guest. Matthew said this wasn’t borderline at all, but open-and-shut: and there could be no question that Laws must go at once. He said it with such command and moral confidence that I began to wonder if I’d been foolish to think this finely balanced.
But then I talked to my partner, and we thought of all the other senior politicians who have been found in breach of the letter or spirit of the rules, or paid big money back, and never even considered quitting. Media commentary now seemed to be veering off course to suggest that the offence was for an MP to share accommodation with a partner at the taxpayer’s expense (which hundreds legitimately do). This was not about money but about Laws’s misjudged insistence on privacy. Reports were summing together as ‘£40,000 of taxpayers’ money’ the totality of Laws’s claims, though the rules only changed in 2006. I was getting the sniff of a media campaign, rather than a balanced judgment.
By coffee I’d concluded that he quite possibly didn’t have to go. Then Sky News arrived, with a TV satellite van, for an interview to which I’d rashly agreed. It was make-your-mind-up time as I stood in front of the camera, under an umbrella. ‘Well,’ (I said to myself in the minutes before we were live) ‘what do I actually believe? That this man’s departure would be a huge loss. And I’m not sure he should quit. Ergo, I’m sure he shouldn’t.’ Listening to myself in the rain being interviewed, I was surprised at the strength of the case, once you started to make it. How had I been so nearly persuaded by Matthew d’Ancona?
After that came many interviews, and a Monday column for the Times. One of two people contacted me to say they had been uncertain but that I had helped persuade them. If interview requests are anything to go by, then the stuff I did attracted a reasonable amount of attention.
My conclusions? I am perhaps not quite a heavyweight commentator — more like the second league. So if I had been conscious of hesitating, then jumping, and of some other media colleagues doing the same, and if I had sensed a collective media judgment rather delicately poised at first, then tipping the other way, then perhaps these twists and turns of history are not as predestined as we like to murmur wisely later. Individuals’ judgments matter, and facts alone may not dictate those judgments.
It’s not boastful, I hope — it could even involve humility — to acknowledge that each of us, in or out of the media, and the views we communicate, can help determine outcomes. We are neither prophets nor historians, but participants. David Laws didn’t have to go; so if he went, then this might have been something to do with us. We should be ashamed of ourselves.
Matthew Parris is a columnist for the Times.