Part Two of The Spectator’s Guide to the Top 50 Political Scandals — counting down from No. 25 to No. 1
There is one word that frightens politicians more than any other: scandal.
They know that scandal can bring about personal ruin, cut short a promising career and even bring down a government.
The power of scandal is that it imprints itself on the public mind. Some are about sex, others about money, drugs or espionage. But they are all about power: the corrupter, the ultimate aphrodisiac.
This is your guide to the scandalous world of Westminster. Read on.
And if you missed the first part, you can catch up on the countdown from 50 to 26.
Mandelson: the one-man scandal machine
It is the greatest paradox of contemporary politics: the master of spin, the lord of the dark arts, the king of the fixers — who even managed to save the flatlining premiership of Gordon Brown last month — has also been the most scandal-prone minister of the New Labour era, a man who scarcely seems able to pop out to the shops without generating a flurry of innuendo-packed headlines. Few doubt his political genius. Peter Mandelson can spin anything, with one notable exception: himself.
So it is only proper that His Lordship gets a section all to himself in our guide to political scandals. Before Labour swept to office in 1997, Mandelson and his friends fretted that his sexuality would be an issue: in the event he was outed in October 1998 by our own Matthew Parris on Newsnight after the resignation of Ron Davies — and the nation responded with a collective shrug.
Not so two months later when it emerged that the then secretary of state for Trade and Industry had borrowed £373,000 from Brownite Treasury minister Geoffrey Robinson to buy a house in west London. Mandelson had failed to declare the loan, even though Robinson was under investigation by his own department. Both ministers were forced to resign in this tit-for-tat street battle between the Blairite and Brownite gangs. Not for the last time, Mandelson’s political career was pronounced dead.
But those who wrote him out of the script forgot both his resilience and the extent to which Tony Blair depended upon him. When Mandelson resigned, the two exchanged pious letters about the need for New Labour to be ‘whiter than white’ and free of the sleaze that had helped destroy the Tories. But Blair always said that if world war three ever broke out, the first person he would phone would be his old friend Peter. So, only ten months after his first departure from Cabinet, he was back — this time, as secretary of state for Northern Ireland.
And this time, his fall was more complex, more dramatic and probably unnecessary. It centred on the Hinduja brothers, the money they had given to help fund the Millennium Dome (a Mandelson project) and whether or not he had lobbied Mike O’Brien, a Home Office minister, on behalf of Srichand Hinduja, who was seeking British citizenship. Had it been any other Cabinet minister, Blair might have waited for the Hammond inquiry into the whole messy affair. But it wasn’t, and he didn’t. Mandelson, devastated that he had been so quickly ditched by his Blairite comrades, resigned in January 2001.
And that, it was assumed, was that. In November 2004, having resigned as MP for Hartlepool, he became Britain’s European Commissioner for Trade, and headed off to join the Brussels elite. From time to time, the word ‘Mandy’ and ‘investigation’ would appear in a headline, for old times’ sake. In April 2005, it emerged that Mandelson had spent the previous New Year’s Eve on the yacht of Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, which was the subject of a major EU investigation. But there was no allegation of impropriety in the story: Mandy, a yacht, a tycoon. Such stories had become almost traditional.
So it was business as usual when, in October 2008, a furore broke out over his presence in Corfu on a yacht belonging to the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Of course Mandelson had been there. It was a yacht, after all. Much more attention was paid to what had been said and asked for by Mandelson’s fellow guest, shadow chancellor George Osborne. For once, ‘Mandy’ was not the first word in the headlines.
Now restored to the Cabinet — in one of the greatest twists in modern politics — by his former deadly foe Gordon Brown, Lord Mandelson of Foy in the County of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the County of Durham is the second most powerful man in the government. He hovers between national treasure and public enemy number one. You never know what’s coming next. Which is why, in our Scandals Special, it would be rude not to award him this special commendation for all the joy he has brought us over the past 12 years.
25. A traitor at the Palace, 1940-1979
Anthony Blunt was the surveyor of the King’s — and then the Queen’s — pictures, a knight of the realm and an honorary fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. He was also a Soviet spy.
Blunt was the fourth man in the infamous Cambridge spy ring of 1930s students: Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Kim Philby and John Cairncross. He joined MI5 in 1940 and passed secrets to the Russians until he left at the end of the war. He was then appointed surveyor of the King’s pictures. However, he continued to assist his fellow traitors. He passed on a warning from Philby to Maclean that prompted Maclean’s defection.
After Philby’s outing in 1964 and with the evidence against him mounting, Blunt confessed in exchange for immunity. He continued in his job as surveyor of the Queen’s pictures until he retired in 1972. However, in 1979 the publication of a book by Andrew Doyle called The Climate of Treason prompted the Thatcher government to confirm that Blunt had been a spy, a traitor at the very heart of the establishment.
24. Gerrymandering Westminster, 1987 to 1996
The Tory victory in council elections in Westminster in 1990 at the height of opposition to the poll tax was spectacular. John Major was so impressed that he made Lady Shirley Porter, the Tory leader of the council, a dame. But the victory was the result of systematic gerrymandering.
Concerned at how the Tory majority had fallen from 26 to four in the 1986 elections, Porter implemented a strategy of not re-letting council houses in eight swing wards. By waiting for someone to buy the house and not having another council tenant, the Tory vote was increased. The problem was that the council had to bear the cost of these properties being empty.
In 1996, the district auditor declared the policy illegal and demanded that Porter and her team repay £27 million, rising to £36.1 million once interest and costs were taken into account. The Court of Appeal rejected this judgment in 1999 but the House of Lords upheld it in 2001.
Porter, a Tesco heiress, initially claimed she only had £300,000 to her name. However, in 2004 she paid £12 million in a settlement.
23. 17 people who matter, March 1998
‘There are 17 people who matter — and to say that I am intimate with every one of them is the understatement of the century.’ So said Derek Draper, truly a man at the centre of things. A former adviser to Peter Mandelson, Draper had written an insider account of Blair’s first 100 days in government, and become a corporate lobbyist.
But Draper was forced into political exile after it was revealed that he had boasted about cash for access deals with an undercover Observer journalist. Draper became a psychotherapist.
He later said about his New Labour days, ‘I was interested in politics. And shagging… ideally, the two things together. Go to conference, pull the fittest girl from Labour students, make a speech. My idea of heaven.’ Draper couldn’t resist returning to politics a decade later. But he was soon caught up in Smearga
te, drawn like a moth to the flame of scandal.
22. John Major and digging dirt on Bill Clinton, 1992
Governments shouldn’t interfere in other country’s elections, and if they do they certainly shouldn’t back the losing side.
A distinct coolness came over the special relationship with the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. Clinton was indignant at the help that John Major’s Conservative party had given to his Republican opponent. The Conservative party chairman and deputy chairman, who had helped John Major win the 1992 election, had travelled to the US during the campaign and advised the Republicans to attack Clinton’s character. More worryingly, the Home Office had searched through his confidential files to see if Clinton had applied for British citizenship in an attempt to avoid the draft when he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. An irritated Clinton remarked that he ‘thought they [the British government] had more pressing things to do’. When Major turned up in Washington in December 1992, President-elect Clinton was too busy to see him. Relations between Britain and America only really warmed up again with the election of Tony Blair in 1997.
21. Jacqui Smith’s husband and the taxpayer-funded porn, 2009
It is almost impossible to think of a greater humiliation for a politician than that which was visited on Jacqui Smith. The then home secretary was already under fire over her expenses when it emerged in March that her husband had watched two porn films and charged them to the taxpayer.
The press went to town on poor Smith, turning her into an object of ridicule. (Her husband’s taste was also called into question by the fact he had paid to watch Ocean’s Thirteen twice.) Smith, knowing that she could never recover and that she will probably lose her seat at the next election, stood down from the Cabinet in June.
20. The book the government tried to ban, 1985 to 1988
When the former assistant director of MI5 Peter Wright attempted to publish his autobiography in Australia, the British government moved to ban it.
THE BOOK contained two sensational allegations: that Harold Wilson was a Soviet agent whom British intelligence agents had conspired to remove from power, and that the ex-director-general of MI5 Roger Hollis was a KGB mole. However, the ban applied only to England, not to Scotland, and the battle to suppress it in Australia was lost in 1987.
The book was a bestseller in the US and its contents came to be widely known in England. However, the Thatcher government continued to fight to prevent publication. Injunctions were taken out against several newspapers and others were sued for reporting its contents. The Sunday Times, however, went ahead and published an extract anyway.
In 1988, the government finally lost its case. But Peter Wright rather discredited his own book when he admitted that sections of it were ‘unreliable’.
19. A good day to bury bad news, 2001
When the second hijacked plane hit the World Trade Center, most people saw a tragedy. But Jo Moore saw an opportunity. Within an hour, the special adviser to transport secretary Stephen Byers fired off an email suggesting it was ‘a very good day to get anything out we want to bury’.
The SPIN was that Moore had written the message before either tower collapsed. However, that failed spectacularly — people were, after all, leaping to their death from the top floors of the building at the time she was composing her email. Remarkably, though, she hung on to her job.
But in February 2002 Moore’s career was finished when a leak revealed that a senior colleague had warned against releasing a damaging set of figures on the day of Princess Margaret’s funeral. Ironically, the case against her in the second instance was far less clear-cut.
18. Drunk in Venice, 1957
In 1957, the Labour trio of Nye Bevan, Richard Crossman and Morgan Phillips sued this magazine for saying that delegates at the Italian Socialist party conference were amazed by ‘their capacity to fill themselves like tanks with whisky and coffee’ and were ‘never sure if the British delegation was sober’.
THE politicians won, The Spectator paying them each damages of £2,500. But Crossman’s diaries, published after his death, conceded that Phillips had been ‘dead drunk for most of the conference’. He is also supposed to have admitted at a Private Eye lunch that all three of them had been the worse for wear.
17. The leaking of the Hutton report, 2004
The publication of the Hutton report was one of the most eagerly anticipated events in modern politics. Some thought that this investigation into the events leading to the death of Dr David Kelly, the government scientist who was the source for Andrew Gilligan’s report that the government knew the 45-minute claim on Saddam Hussein’s WMD was bogus, would bring down Tony Blair.
Certainly, the inquiry had placed Blair’s government under huge pressure. But the night before the report was due to be released, the Sun printed its conclusions on the front page of its first edition. The headlines splashed that the Prime Minister had been ‘sensationally cleared’ and that the report was a ‘devastating indictment of the BBC and its defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan’.
Many presumed that the government had leaked the news to the Sun, which was pro-war and pro-Blair. But the newspaper and the government strenuously denied this. An inquiry into the leak by Lord Hutton’s office, predictably, got nowhere.
16. Reggie Perrin’s inspiration, 1974
John Stonehouse’s businesses were in trouble and the Labour MP knew his affairs were being investigated by the Department of Trade and Industry. So he left his clothes on a Miami beach in an attempt to give the impression he had drowned.
THE SCAM worked. Even though there was no body, he was presumed dead. But Stonehouse was on this way to Australia with his secretary to start a new life. The game was up, however, when he was arrested by Australian police, who reportedly thought he was Lord Lucan. Stonehouse was extradited to England, where he continued to sit as an MP. He sensationally resigned the Labour whip a few weeks before his trial began, denying the party its majority. He was convicted of a number of offences.
15. Labour’s first sleaze resignation, 1948
John Belcher’s resignation was, perhaps, the moment the Labour party lost its innocence. Belcher, parliamentary secretary to the Board of Trade in the postwar Attlee government, fell in with the lobbyist Sidney Stanley and found himself corrupted.
Stanley, dubbed the Spider of Park Lane, was a Polish immigrant with an outstanding deportation order against him. But he entertained in the highest style, spending — incredibly — more than £60,000 a year on it. He lavished gifts on Belcher including a birthday party, family holidays, a three-piece suit and trips to the dogs and boxing matches. All this during an era of rationing.
In 1948, rumour had it that Stanley was boasting that Belcher would intervene to prevent the prosecution of a company that had breached the paper rationing rules. An inquiry was set up into the claim and Belcher’s behaviour. It reported in January 1949 that Belcher had used his position to extract ‘small gifts and hospitality’. Belcher, who had already resigned as a minister, stood down as an MP. This affair was the origin of the adage that Labour scandals are about money and Tory ones about sex.
14. Tarzan swings out of the Cabinet, 1986
It was the most dramatic ministerial resignation possible. Michael Heseltine stormed out of a Cabinet meeting on 9 January 1986 and onto Downing
Street, where he told the media of his resignation.
Heseltine had been angered by Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to allow further Cabinet discussion over the future of Westland, the last British manufacturer of helicopters. Heseltine, the defence secretary, wanted the firm to merge with a European consortium, while Thatcher and the trade and industry secretary Leon Brittan supported Westland’s decision to accept a bid from an American firm.
The argument had been vicious, with briefing and counter-briefing coming from both sides. Weeks later, Brittan had to resign over his role in the leaking of various letters. Thatcher then faced a Commons debate that could have ended her premiership, with her whole approach to Cabinet government under attack. But Neil Kinnock failed to deliver the killer blow. The Welsh Windbag had let the Iron Lady off the hook.
13. Jeffrey Archer goes on trial for perjury
This scandal had more twists in it than the plot of one of Archer’s novels. But it didn’t end happily for Archer — he was sentenced to four years for perjury.
In 1986, the Daily Star accused the then Tory deputy chairman of paying £2,000 to Monica Coghlan, a prostitute the paper alleged he had slept with. Archer sued for libel and won damages of half a million pounds in 1987.
Despite controversies over his share dealings and all the other questions of character that surrounded him, Archer won the Conservative nomination for the first London mayoral contest. But shortly afterwards, the News of the World reported a claim from Archer’s personal assistant and a friend that Archer had fabricated his alibi at the 1987 libel trial. The next day Archer stood down with the condemnation of the then Tory leader William Hague ringing in his ears.
But Archer’s troubles were not over. He was charged with perjury and perverting the course of justice and subsequently found guilty of perjury. He was released on licence in 2003 having served half his sentence.
12. The Chancellor leaks the Budget, 1947
If there is one government document that must not be leaked it is the Budget, the most market-sensitive of announcements. But in 1947, Hugh Dalton, chancellor in Attlee’s postwar government, had to resign for passing the entire contents of the Budget to a journalist.
DALTON had tried to help out a lobby journalist for the Star, an evening paper, by giving him an advance copy of his speech. But the presses rolled with the details of the Budget while the chancellor was still at the dispatch box and the markets still open. Dalton had to go.
Dalton, though, was one of the first victims of scandal successfully to rehabilitate himself. He rejoined the Cabinet just a year later in 1948 and served in it until Labour’s defeat in the 1951 election.
Gordon Brown’s henchmen had long been known in Westminster for their ‘play the man, not the ball’ approach to politics. But emails that Damian McBride, a long-serving and loyal Brown spinner, sent to Derek Draper (a repeat scandal offender, see no. 23) about possible items for a putative left-wing gossip site, Red Rag, were still shocking.
McBride suggested stories about the mental wellbeing of the spouse of a senior Tory, the sexual habits of a prominent female backbencher and of the Tory leader having an embarrassing illness, among other things. However, the emails fell into the hand of Paul Staines, whose Guido Fawkes blog prided itself on taking the fight to McBride. He passed them on to News International. The day before the emails were due to be published in the News of the World and the Sunday Times, McBride quit.
The revelations did considerable damage to the PM, shining a light on how the Brownites had operated for so long. The departure of McBride, Brown’s most effective hit man, also helped embolden his party’s internal critics to mount another attempt to replace him.
10. John Major and Edwina Currie — the one that got away, 1984-88
The public image of John Major was as the grey man of British politics, but he was actually an adulterous risk-taker. If his secret past had been revealed while he was Prime Minister, he might well have had to resign.
In 1991, John Major successfully sued Scallywag and the New Statesman for suggesting that he had had an affair with the Downing Street cook. The legal costs caused Scallywag to fold. Two years later, Major launched the ‘back to basics’ campaign which encouraged support for traditional morality and the family. This led to the media examining the private lives of Tory ministers and MPs; many were compelled to stand down as their private lives became public. But the lawyers and the bloodhounds of the press missed the big story: the Prime Minister had had a four-year affair with a fellow Tory MP.
Between 1984 and 1988, Major and Edwina Currie had been lovers. The affair had ended when Major was promoted to the Cabinet. Miraculously, however, the story did not emerge until Edwina Currie published her diaries in 2002.
The revelations took the nation by storm. Currie’s lament in her diary that ‘I wish my flat was filled with one big man in his blue underpants’ stuck in the popular mind.
But while Curry relished the attention she received and the boost in sales to her diaries, Major said that the affair was the thing ‘of which I am most ashamed’. He stressed that his wife, Norma, had long known of his indiscretion.
9. The simple sword of truth, 1995-1997
‘If it falls to me to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play, so be it.’
Jonathan Aitken’s grandiloquent language would come back to haunt him, as he not only lost the libel action he launched over claims that an Arab businessman had paid for his stay at the Ritz in Paris, but ended up being jailed for perjury.
Despite his charisma and good looks, Aitken’s political career had progressed slowly: Mrs Thatcher had never forgiven him for dumping her daughter Carol. But under John Major, Aitken began to make rapid progress. In July 1994, Aitken was appointed to the Cabinet. But a year later, he resigned to sue the Guardian and Granada over allegations about his relationship with Prince Mohammed.
Aitken maintained that his wife had paid his bill at the Paris Ritz, something that was supported by a statement from his daughter. However, in July 1997 Aitken’s case fell apart as the Guardian produced evidence which showed that he had lied in court about this. Aitken was then prosecuted for perjury. He pleaded guilty and served seven months in jail.
8. The cuckolded PM, the Lord and the gangsters, 1929 to 1964
Robert Boothby achieved the scandal hat trick. He had an affair with the Prime Minister’s wife, a gay affair with a notorious East End gangster, and had to resign over his failure to disclose his ownership of foreign assets.
Boothby was a Churchill protégé and served as his parliamentary private secretary from 1926 to 1929. In 1929, he also began an affair with Dorothy Macmillan, Harold’s wife. Despite Macmillan becoming Prime Minister and most of the press knowing what was going on, the story never came out. Macmillan even made Boothby a peer in 1958.
Boothby’s various affairs are said to have produced three illegitimate children. But his sexual appetites could not be satisfied by women alone. He also had homosexual lovers including, allegedly, Ronnie Kray. When the Sunday Mirror implied in 1964 that Boothby and Kray were having an affair and that the peer knew Kray was a gangster, he sued. The Sunday Mirror paid damages and its editor resigned. However, rumours continued to swirl around Boothby.
7. A pretty straight sort of guy, 1997 rong>
If it hadn’t happened during Tony Blair’s honeymoon period, this scandal could have brought down the government.
In January 1997, Bernie Ecclestone, the head of Formula 1, gave the Labour party £1 million. The donation was not made public at the time. In May, Labour was elected with a massive majority. On 16 October, Ecclestone met with Blair personally to request that Formula 1 be exempted from the forthcoming ban on tobacco advertising. In November it was announced that the ban would not apply to Formula 1. In the subsequent furore, the donation was made public and returned to Ecclestone.
In an attempt to draw a line under the story, Blair gave an On the Record interview to John Humphrys in which he declared he was a ‘pretty straight sort of guy’. Six months into his premiership, that was good enough for the public. But Blair’s team had been so nervous about the interview that they insisted Humphrys also ask him questions about foreign affairs, hoping that this would give him a statesmanlike air before the discussion turned to the scandal.
6. The Lavender List, 1976
The case of Harold Wilson’s ‘Lavender List’ is like an onion: you can peel back layer after layer in search of the truth, and end up with nothing in your hands.
THE BARE facts are that after his abrupt departure from 10 Downing Street in April 1976, Wilson published a set of resignation honours which awarded peerages and knighthoods to people who — as Roy Jenkins put it — were ‘close neither to him nor to the Labour party’. Among the eyebrow-raising names were those of Joseph Kagan, who would be imprisoned for fraud in 1980, and Eric Miller, who committed suicide while under investigation by the police. The honours were dubbed the ‘Lavender List’ after Wilson’s press secretary, Joe Haines, claimed the first draft was written by the head of the PM’s political office, Marcia Falkender, on lavender-coloured notepaper.
But start peeling away those layers and questions abound. Just who did concoct the list? Haines’s implication was that Falkender had done so, without much input from Wilson. But this has been denied by both Falkender and Wilson, while others have pointed out that there’s nothing too unusual about a member of the PM’s office taking down the first draft of a document.
But why, then, the eccentric selection of names? There have been suggestions that Falkender picked people to whom she was indebted, or that Wilson benefited financially from the arrangements — but these theories were also denied. There are even doubts about the colour of the notepaper. Haines has said that it may actually have been closer to ‘lilac’, and some sources say it may have been pink. No original copy has ever entered the public domain to confirm the argument either way.
It’s unlikely we’ll ever find out the full story behind this odd moment from the dying days of Wilson’s premiership. But the onion remains, testament to the behind-the-scenes mysteriousness of British politics.
5. The great expenses scandal, 2009
It didn’t have to be like this. The mood of fear, loathing and recrimination currently reverberating around Westminster didn’t have to be so severe or pervasive. After all, the honourable members had plenty of warning about the brewing expenses scandal. As far back as January 2008 — when Tory MP Derek Conway was busted for dubiously siphoning thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ cash into his son’s bank account — it was obvious that the parliamentary gravy train was a clear and present danger to our democracy. Yet instead of stopping it in its tracks back then, the political class simply allowed it to keep on rolling.
DAVID Cameron did withdraw the party whip from Conway. And all the party leaders spent much of 2008 talking about a ‘new politics’ which would be more open, transparent and honest. But the upshot was negligible. The publication of MPs’ expenses was actively resisted and continually pushed back, while the bluster about ‘new politics’ soon subsided once the economy became the issue du jour. It seemed that most MPs hoped this particular episode could be swept under the trough, so to speak.
But then, throughout early 2009, the rules of the game started to change. A series of revelations — including news that the then home secretary Jacqui Smith had claimed for items including porn films (viewed by her husband) and a bath plug — brought grim confirmation that someone was hawking a full set of expense receipts to the press. Panic descended on the Commons, as rumours circulated that a newspaper was poised to buy the entire bundle. And there were reports that some MPs had been put on ‘suicide watch’ as a result. Whatever the truth of those reports, events had clearly run way, way ahead of the politicians. Anything could happen next.
And then came the storm. On 7 May 2009, the Daily Telegraph revealed that it had got its hands on the receipts, thus beginning a process of naming and shaming which was a triumph for the editor Will Lewis, and continues apace. There are — alas — far too many receipt offenders to give them all a mention here, except to say that MPs have made claims for duck houses, massage chairs and moat-cleaning; they’ve been had for claiming interest payments on mortgages they’ve already paid off; and — irony of all ironies — they’ve enjoyed tax advice at the taxpayer’s expense. The scandal has even spawned a new verb — ‘flipping’ — the practice of swapping your first and second home designations to maximise your expenses claims. Yep, a lot of MPs have been exposed as serial flippers.
Incredibly, much of this great bonfire of public money has been within the parliamentary rules on expenses. Yet, as highlighted by the bombshell election of two BNP candidates to the European parliament in June, that hasn’t stemmed the public’s anger with the mainstream parties, nor prevented the political system from falling into unhappy disarray. For their part, the party leaders have responded with a display of what Ann Widdecombe memorably called ‘my shirt is hairier than yours’. MPs have been sacked, suspended and forced to pay back dodgy claims; a Speaker of the House of Commons — Michael Martin — has been forced out of office for the first time in 300 years; and various parliamentary, constitutional and electoral reforms have been proposed and introduced for the purpose of restoring faith in the system. Even so, there are persistent indications that the political class still doesn’t quite ‘get it’. When parliament finally published ‘details’ of MPs’ expenses, they were so full of redactions and omissions that it sparked yet another uproar. Transparency certainly doesn’t come easily to this lot.
The ongoing nature of this particular scandal makes it difficult to finish on either a note of optimism or one of dreary pessimism. Thanks to all those receipts, we might — might — get the change we need and deserve: a political system that’s fairer, cleaner and more open. But it remains disheartening that a national newspaper had to go on a political killing spree, exposing grand trough-ery and borderline criminality as it did so, before our parliamentary representatives decided to get up from their massage chairs and actually Do Something About It.
Either way, there’s an air of futility about parliament’s new-found reformist vigour. Whatever MPs do, however much they bark about ‘change’, you still feel many of them are just hunkering down, waiting to be blown away come election time. Voters, fix your bayonets.
4. The dodgy dossier
In May 2003, BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan alleged
that the intelligence dossier justifying the Iraq invasion was ‘sexed up’, that the government knew that at least one of the claims it was making was false. A senior government source had informed Gilligan that intelligence chiefs had reservations concerning the 45-minute claim. Immediately pressure mounted on Alistair Campbell and Tony Blair — accused of lying to take the country to war.
Downing Street began to rebut Gilligan and the BBC. In the ensuing furore, the government scientist and weapons expert Dr David Kelly (pictured) was identified as the mole.
Kelly appeared before a hostile foreign affairs select committee on 15 July. He was under visible stress and spoke in a voice so quiet the air conditioning had to be turned off. Andrew MacKinlay MP described Kelly as ‘chaff… thrown up to divert our questioning’. He disappeared, committing suicide three days later.
Critics of Blair and Campbell argued that the government’s spinning had placed Kelly under such pressure that he had killed himself. Blair immediately conceded an inquiry, headed by Lord Hutton. However, it found against the BBC and exonerated the government.
3. Brown envelopes, 1994-1997
Cash for questions was the biggest scandal of the 1990s. It involved two of the most incorrigible figures of British public life: Neil Hamilton, a Tory minister, and Mohamed Fayed, the owner of Harrods. It is a tale of inquiries, lawsuits, profanities and brown paper envelopes stuffed with cash: money which — according to Fayed — was paid by him to Hamilton for asking questions in the House of Commons.
Fayed wanted a British passport, and was (and remains) furious that the government would not give him one. So in 1994 he decided to cause John Major’s government a whole load of trouble. He told the Guardian that Mr Hamilton and his fellow junior minister Tim Smith had asked questions on his behalf in the Commons through a lobbyist named Ian Greer. He claimed to have been told by Greer that ‘You need to rent an MP just like you rent a London taxi’, and that he was shocked to find that democracy was for hire. But not so shocked that he didn’t pay, by his own admission, £8,000 a month for such questions.
Smith confessed and resigned, but Hamilton and Greer decided to sue for libel. (Hamilton had successfully sued the BBC eight years earlier for claiming he had links with far-right groups.) Hamilton had allegedly asked ten questions for Greer in the late 1980s involving eight early day motions. He resigned as corporate affairs minister in order to clear his name, but it all came to nothing. He and Greer dropped their lawsuit against the Guardian just hours before the case was due to start, blaming lack of funds.
By then, the stench of sleaze was overwhelming. The Sunday Times had earlier that year launched a separate ‘cash for questions’ operation, in which its reporters paid £1,000 to Tory MPs in exchange for asking questions about government contracts. Polls show two thirds of the public considered the Tories ‘sleazy and untrustworthy’.
In the 1997 election, the court of public opinion delivered its verdict. The white-suited BBC correspondent Martin Bell stood on an anti-sleaze ticket against Hamilton and won easily.
Two months later a delayed report by the parliamentary commissioner for standards, Sir Gordon Downey, said there was ‘compelling’ evidence that Hamilton had accepted Fayed’s bribe. Hamilton disputed this and sued Fayed over the allegations. He lost. Hamilton and his self-styled battleaxe of a wife Christine didn’t slink away though. Instead, in a desperate bid to raise money, they became ever-present on the celebrity humiliation circuit. Hamilton still defiantly maintains his innocence.
2. The dog gets it, 1961–1979
There has been no more bizarre scandal in British political history than the one involving Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott. Thorpe was a dashing young Liberal MP, elected in 1959 aged 30. A former president of the Oxford Union, everything was falling into place for him. But in 1961 he met Norman Scott, a troubled individual who would plague Thorpe for the rest of his life. Scott claimed that Thorpe had sex with him, an act that would have been illegal at the time.
IN 1962 Thorpe helped Scott avoid a charge of theft. But that was just the beginning of Scott’s odd behaviour. Meanwhile, Thorpe’s career prospered, and he became Liberal leader in 1967. Scott went to the press in 1969 with allegations about their relationship, but the papers wouldn’t publish. In 1973, he moved to Thorpe’s constituency, bringing trouble.
The next year Thorpe was involved in talks with Ted Heath about a possible coalition after the 1974 election. But Scott wouldn’t go away. In 1975, an ‘assassin’ was supposedly hired to kill him. The assassin executed Scott’s dog, Rinka, and warned him he would be next. In the ensuing court case, Scott stated that he and Thorpe had had an affair — the press could now report this charge without fear of being sued. The ‘assassin’ was found guilty of firearms offences and sent to jail. On his release in 1977, he sold his story, alleging he had been hired to kill Scott.
Thorpe lost his seat in the 1979 general election. Later that year, he went on trial for conspiracy to murder. He was found not guilty.
1. The Profumo affair, 1961-1963
There was never any doubt as to which scandal would be number one. The Profumo affair isn’t just the sauciest or the most outrageous political scandal to hit Britain in the last 50 years — it’s of a different order to the rest: the perfect political storm. It’s a freak, a tsunami of a story still sweeping through the public imagination, the subject of movies and pop songs and whispered conspiracy theories.
There will never be, can never be, another scandal to touch it. Just a glance at the cast list confirms its A-grade status. Our protagonist is the distinguished John Profumo, D-Day hero and secretary of state for war. Then there’s a toff, Lord Astor, given to holding saucy parties at Cliveden, his stately home, and a pimp, Stephen Ward, society osteopath and procurer of ‘good-time girls’ for the nobility; there’s a Russian naval officer — perhaps a spy — Yevgeny ‘Eugene’ Ivanov, and a West Indian gangster. Linking all these various men is their lover, Christine Keeler, showgirl and femme fatale.
That fateful meeting between Christine Keeler and John Profumo took place at Cliveden in 1961. Our cast were all assembled in that magnificent house, like the contestants in a game of Cluedo: John Profumo, his wife Valerie, Lord Astor, Stephen Ward and Christine. Christine was in love with the oily Ward (whose first London job had been selling this magazine) but nonetheless, when Profumo made a pass at her, she knew better than to turn him down.
Soon, they were having an affair. And perhaps the minister’s secret sex life would have stayed under wraps if not for the fact that Christine had been involved not only with Profumo and Ward, but also the Russian attaché, Ivanov. This was a very alarming state of affairs for MI5. Had Christine been groomed by the Soviets to spy on the war secretary? Was their pillow talk being relayed back to Moscow?
Rumours of the Profumo affair were soon rife. But they might have stayed in establishment circles, just delicious gossip for those in the know, were it not for Christine’s sordid past. One night, after a fight in Soho, another former lover of Christine’s, Johnny Edgecombe, arrived at Stephen Ward’s house in Wimpole Mews and began shooting at the door.
Christine called the police and the incident attracted the attention of the press, which began to dig around, discovering Christine’s involvement with first
Ward, then Profumo.
By 1963, the affair had become so widely talked about that Profumo issued a statement of denial to the House of Commons: I did not have sexual relations with that woman. In June 1963 he was forced to admit that he had lied to the House and had no alternative but to resign from both the government and parliament. Stephen Ward was arrested for ‘living on the earnings of prostitution’. Christine Keeler gave evidence at his trial. As the case was drawing to a close, the prosecuting council summed up with a vicious speech, attacking Stephen Ward for his loose morals. That night, Ward is said to have taken an overdose and died, though the authors of Honeytrap, published in 1987, claimed that Ward didn’t kill himself but was murdered by MI5.
Prime Minister Harold Macmillan never really recovered from the whole horrid affair. He fell ill and resigned in October 1963. The Conservative party lost both its air of authority and the next general election. But the most significant effect of the Profumo scandal was the loss of public deference. Before Profumo, the public were in the dark about the private lives of members of the establishment. Most assumed that great men occupied the moral high ground with the same ease with which they occupied high society. Macmillan’s wife’s passionate affair with the bisexual MP Bob Boothby never even made the papers, though it was common knowledge in establishment circles. Can you imagine that now?
Profumo paved the way for every political scandal since. After his trial in 1963, the press would never be so discreet again, nor the public so naive.