Nigel Jones

Pestminster’s return spells trouble for Boris

Political scandal is often followed by political upheaval

Pestminster's return spells trouble for Boris
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Some male MPs behave ‘like animals’. In the wake of the recent spate of bad behaviour among our lords and masters, Attorney General Suella Braverman's comments confirm what many of us already knew. So what is going on down at the Westminster farm? Whoever is to blame for the moral degradation in SW1, this string of stories should trouble Boris Johnson. After all, political scandal is often followed by political upheaval.

Female MPs have claimed that a Tory MP has been openly watching porn on the green benches. A troubled Tory, Bridgend MP Jamie Wallis – who recently announced that he was intending to transition, and has spoken of the trauma of being raped – has been charged with leaving the scene of a car crash without reporting the accident. Another Tory MP, Wakefield’s Imran Ahmad Khan, is stepping down – but not just yet – after being convicted of sexually assaulting a teenage boy.

On the Labour side of the House, Leicester East MP Claudia Webbe has lost the party whip (but refuses to resign) after being convicted of harassing a love rival by threatening to throw acid in her face and send naked photographs of the woman to her family. Birmingham Hodge Hill’s MP Liam Byrne has been suspended from the Commons for two days for bullying a former member of his staff. Meanwhile, an anonymous Welsh woman MP has reported that a member of the shadow cabinet made lewd and sexist remarks to her. If true, he joins no fewer than 56 MPs – including two high-profile Labour members – who have been reported to the Parliamentary watchdog for various forms of sexual misbehaviour.

Both Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer have also been caught up in claims that they broke the rules forbidding social gatherings during the Covid pandemic, with the PM and Chancellor Rishi Sunak being fined for briefly attending the Prime Minister’s own birthday bash. Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner is tangled in a misogyny row involving the PM and the alleged crossing and uncrossing of her legs during PMQs.

Are our rulers and legislators having some sort of collective breakdown, behaving like the pigs in Orwell’s masterpiece? Or has such behaviour always been rife, and is only being exposed now in the #MeToo era under the harsh light of the social media age?

Parliamentary behaviour has always reflected the pendulum swings between louche liberties and prim Puritanism in the wider society beyond Westminster’s walls. In modern times, there have been two periods when a flurry of scandals has accompanied the fag end of long periods of Tory rule. In the early 1960s, an elderly Harold MacMillan was presiding over a 13 year stint of unbroken Conservative government when he was suddenly beset by the mother and father of all political scandals: the Profumo affair.

As society started to swing in the Sixties, and post-war austerity and restraint gave way to the unabashed hedonism of a looser decade, the Profumo affair had it all: a beautiful ‘model’ simultaneously consorting with the War Minister and a Soviet spy at the height of the Cold War; kinky aristocratic sex parties; a Duchess wearing only pearls fellating a 'headless' man; a shooting; a suicide; seedy clubs and call girls; and court cases in which the dirty washing of the ruling caste was thoroughly washed before the delighted eyes of a prurient public.

Profumo played a large part in speeding the demise of the Tory government just a year after the scandal broke. Thirty years later, in the early 1990s, the hapless and lacklustre John Major was seeing out the tail end of another protracted period of Tory rule, the Thatcher decade. This time it was not one single scandal that helped bring the government down but a whole raft of them.

After Major made an absurd speech calling for a ‘back to basics’ return to Victorian values, Tory MP after Tory MP were exposed as having been involved in shady financial shenanigans or sexual straying, straight and gay. It was the era of cash for questions, money in brown envelopes, and a minister dubbed ‘Minister for Mistresses’ after he was revealed to have five girlfriends on the go.

One Minister was jailed for perjury; another was ejected from his seat by BBC journalist Martin Bell, campaigning in a white suit on an anti-corruption ticket. Major was duly buried by the New Labour landslide in the 1997 election that brought Tony Blair to power. It was later revealed that Major himself had once enjoyed an adulterous affair with his Conservative colleague Edwina Currie.

Human nature being what it is, and the working conditions at Westminster being what they are, it is scarcely surprising that MPs – and even PMs – are tempted to stray from the straight and narrow. Major was not the first prime minister to be touched by the breath of scandal. Among his 20th century predecessors, H.H. Asquith was notoriously ‘unsafe in taxis’ and spent Cabinet meetings penning love letters to his mistress Venetia Stanley. His successor David Lloyd George was nicknamed ‘the Goat’ for his many affairs and made his principal mistress Frances Stevenson his political secretary; while MacMillan was cuckolded for decades by his Tory colleague Lord Boothby.

It does seem, however, that such scandals surface most frequently during the dying days of governments that have been too long in office, and lost purpose and direction. Like jackals circling wounded members of the herd a hungry media picks off vulnerable victims. Sex scandals are a symptom of decay and give off the rank stench of a regime that is drawing to its close.

Written byNigel Jones

Nigel Jones is a historian and journalist. His next book ‘Kitty’s Salon: Sex, Spying & Surveillance in the Third Reich’ will be published by Bonnier next year.

Topics in this articlePolitics