My friends would concur in describing me as someone in whom the precautionary instinct is not as strong as it ought to be. But even I, were I Mark Oaten, would have asked myself whether running for the leadership of my party was a good idea. All over Westminster, all over Fleet Street and all over Britain, the reaction last weekend to the News of the World’s revelations was the same. Why, Mark, why?
Not why did he patronise rent boys. Most of my countrymen take a worldly if not approving view of the predilections of other men. There’s no accounting for tastes, we murmur — and who knows what drives a fellow human being? Maybe Mr Oaten wanted to be an MP, a husband and a father, but also to take a walk on the wild side. We can all put ourselves in the place of someone torn between ambitions which do not sit comfortably together but who hopes that by being discreet and careful he may hide the contradictions from the general view. And indeed it did look as though Oaten had been successful in that. How much interest would there have been in the story (which is to say: how much could someone have sold it for) if the MP had not been running for his party’s leadership? Not much.
So why did he ratchet up the risk by deliberately turning himself into a national figure? That was the ‘why’ on most lips at Westminster last week.
The easiest answer is the answer I gave, years ago, in the introduction to my book Great Parliamentary Scandals. There’s a streak of exhibitionism (I suggested) and a streak of derring-do in the make-up of a typical would-be politician. The risk of failure inherent in any putative political career is high. Most who start out on the path to Westminster fail: if not at the first fence — getting a Commons seat — then at a subsequent stage on the way to high office.